September 21, 2018 |Tempe, Arizona|00:51:20

Babbitt, Bruce Oral History Interview

Studio Technician 00:00:00

Record, and we’re rolling, so whenever you’re ready to start.

Alright. So this is Paul Hirt and Jennifer Sweeney of Arizona State University interviewing Bruce Babbitt on September 21, 2018, at nine o’clock in the morning at ASU. Bruce, thank you so much for agreeing to meet and speak with us.

00:00:03 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:00:20

Good morning. It’s great to be back.

Great. So, I want to start with a big question. Your family has a long legacy here in Arizona and I just would like to ask you to talk a little bit about your early life experiences and connections to the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.

00:00:22 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:00:38

I think it was pretty obvious and natural growing up in Flagstaff, you know, kind of that is the Grand Canyon. I’m always interested in the out-of-doors of course, and it was an incredible place to be outdoors, hiking and doing all those related things. It stimulated an interest in geology of course, and I went on to do a Geology major in college and do graduate work in Earth Sciences. So the Grand Canyon kind of drew me in that way. The other piece of it, of course, was the river, because the river running really started to come into its own in the 1960s when, particularly with Martin Litton and the other legendary outfitters, and I was drawn to that. Got acquainted with them, particularly with Martin Litton, and spent a lot of time on the river. It was really a terrific part of being up there.

How many river trips do you think you took over the years?

00:01:32 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:01:35

Oh, I’ve–

Through the Grand Canyon?

00:01:35 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:01:35

I have no idea. It would certainly be more than ten and less than fifty, but a lot.

That must be an extraordinary experience.

00:01:41 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:01:46

Well, it blended a lot of things that have really served me very well later on. The outdoor interest, of course, the science training, which I took all the way through graduate school, and the interest in, uh, fluvial geomorphology, if you will.

So, did you notice, when you were taking those trips down the river, or did you talk about, the impacts of Glen Canyon Dam on the river ecosystem? Because that’s what led to the establishment of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program.

00:02:05 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:02:19

Yeah, I really started awakening to the changes along the river probably, you know, not right away, but certainly by the 1970s. So, from trip to trip you could see the way the sand was being totally stripped away, and where a lot of sandy beaches that are now a lot of piles of boulders and rocks. And it came home to me in a really interesting way. I was on a trip with Martin Litton, probably late summer. And Martin said, “We can’t do Hance Rapid. We’re pulling in and making an unscheduled stop.” And I said, “Well what’s that about?” And he said, “Well you wait and see, the river is going to go down so fast, and so quick, that once we get to Hance it will be impassable, and we’ll have to camp and wait until the guys up in Glen Canyon Dam turn the faucet on again, and bring the river back up.” That was kind of the point at which I really sort of viscerally started to make the connection between this incredibly up-and-down river being manipulated for hydro demand. Well, yeah. What it was doing in terms of all the downstream ecology.

You, um, when you became governor in the 1980s, you must have had an opportunity to maybe try to think about how we might solve some of those problems. During that tenure as governor, how did you approach the issues in the Grand Canyon?

00:03:37 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:03:52

Not a lot, obviously spent time out on the river, but my tenure as governor was really intensely focused on the groundwater issues, and trying to bring together the parties, a lot of contentious parties in Arizona, to get what subsequently became the Groundwater Management Act of 1980. So, during the governor years I was kind of an absentee on the river that I had spent so much time on before it happened. There weren’t many voters living on those rocky banks of the Colorado River.

Well, that would change then in the 1990s when you became Secretary of the Interior under the Clinton administration. Can you talk about the origins of the effort under your guidance to try to establish the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program?

00:04:29 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:04:46

Sure. I think it’s important to take a step back and to understand why it is that the Secretary of the Interior is such a significant player on the Colorado River because in most of American history, in most of the river management regimes that you see everywhere else, the federal government is really—an Interior secretary is really not a major player because the control of water on public lands really was fluffed off to the states with the Desert Land Act, clear back in 1880, and there was this kind of sense that water management is not the business of the federal government. It’s a states’ rights kind of function. The Colorado River is a remarkable exception to that, that came about as a result of a really unusual history of litigation and contention which resulted in the decision in Arizona versus California, the great lawsuit, that brought it all to a culmination. And the Supreme Court in that lawsuit rendered an incredible decision which is without precedent and has not been repeated.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:06:09

But they, the court basically going through all of this incredible history of quarreling and fighting, said, “We hold that the Congress has delegated the management of the Colorado River, of the lower river, to the federal government in the form of the Secretary of the Interior.” And the secretary is, by virtue of that court decision invested with—he becomes effectively the water manager of the Lower Colorado River. It’s a remarkable transformation, a lot of controversy at the time. That has in fact–and we can discuss that more if you wish–resulted in a quite interesting, precarious and, and kind of really very productive balance between state and national interests in the river, and the role of the Secretary. So, I arrived in Washington and all of a sudden I’m suited up as the water manager of the Colorado River. And you know, that was like a, like a sardine to a cat (laughter).

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Bruce Babbitt 00:07:21

And I grabbed at that and said, “This is really gonna be interesting.” And, of course, the issue at the time was increasingly the management of Glen Canyon [Dam]. They were surplus years, a lot of water running in the river. And the question was, how were we going to manage it, and the hydropower issue became more and more important as the river damage becomes equally apparent, as I’ve described. Well, the bottom line of that is, it’s complex. It’s not clear what the answers are. There are a lot of serious contending interests at stake. And the only conclusion you can draw from that was, it’s time to get the scientists involved, and to get really serious about water management. The second part of that was, how do you do that? And the answer is you’ve got to get all the contending parties together. You can’t just go say, “I decree: here’s a science program.” You’ve got a lot of people out there: universities, states, federal agencies, and so that’s kind of the platform on which we got into the Glen Canyon river management issues.

You mentioned a lot of contending interests. Some of those are within the Department of the Interior itself. You know, you’ve got the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the one hand, with a wildlife and fish mandate, you’ve got the Bureau of Reclamation with a dam and irrigation and hydropower mandate, how did you find, um, how was it trying to orchestrate and integrate all of these contending interests even under your wing in the federal government?

00:08:44 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:09:12

Well, the Department [of the Interior] is a house divided in terms of all of the agencies, and frankly, the Bureau of Reclamation historically was a kingdom unto itself. The great years of Floyd Dominy as the manager of the Bureau who spoke only to the President and the Congress, who didn’t even bother to talk to the Secretary of the Interior. He ran an empire all of his own. And the Bureau has still got, particularly in those times, much of that kind of legacy kind of in its DNA. There were two things that I think really gave me the leverage to say, folks, we’re going to get together and it’s no longer, you know, unilateral decision making. One, of course was Grand Canyon, a national icon. It’s not like you’re going to go out and say, “Well, here’s the big muddy river. We’d like to see some nice science with no constituency.”

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Bruce Babbitt 00:10:16

This is the Grand Canyon. And there had been some legislation moving in that direction. The second one was the Endangered Species Act. I rapidly came to realize the incredible power of that act. It’s strongly drafted, and the Supreme Court had consistently interpreted the act as saying it is the, in the case of conflict, the Endangered Species Act rules. And that meant that the humpback chub and the warm water adapted species in the junction of the Little Colorado River particularly, were at risk, and that the Fish and Wildlife Service was now going to be, somewhat to the surprise of Bureau of Reclamation, a really big player. And that gave us the chance to bring it together.

So do you remember when, so I guess it was the Record of Decision in 1996 while you were Secretary, that kind of mandated the creation of the adaptive management program and the implementation of that 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act. You want to talk a little bit about the Grand Canyon Protection Act and then that Record of Decision that led to the creation of the program?

00:11:18 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:11:46

Well, I’m going to talk only a little bit because I don’t have a lot of detailed memory about that. What I had in mind at the time, of course, was, we’ve got to get at this problem. We need the science. We are awakening to this concept of adaptive management, which I can describe at more length, and it’s clear that we’ve got to get people moving in the same direction and not only within the Department but in terms of the scientific resources outside the Department, in the universities and elsewhere. Now. That’s basically my role. I mean, I said, “Do it.” [I] signed the document, and went on to other things. So I don’t claim paternity for all of the detail that went into all of that. I’ve really watched it from afar. Of course, went to the great event when the first big flood is generated out of Glen Canyon.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:12:54

Pretty exciting standing up there on a ramp, opening a valve and watching this Niagara of water cascading down into the river as kind of the keystone of the adaptive approach, which is we’ve got to stir that sediment up, get something going on those beaches and see how it goes and adjust. And, interesting enough, we’re still doing that twenty-five years later. We still haven’t learned everything.

Yeah (chuckles). I think that’s one of the foundations of adaptive management science, is that you’re always learning and you always need to be adaptable to what it is that you learn by monitoring the effects of your actions.

00:13:20 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:13:31

Well, it was interesting because I came to my perhaps limited understanding of adaptive management through forest management. And that got started at Northern Arizona University where, on a summer day in 1993, I spent a morning with Wally Covington, in his forest lab, and got deeply engaged in that. And Wally took me up to Mount Trumbull, which was a forest administered, not by the Forest Service, but by the Bureau of Land Management, where I could basically run the joint, and spent a day with Wally up there and then started giving him grants to manage that tract up there in an adaptive way. This was the entire issue of fire, the history of fire suppression and fire restoration, which at the time was one, largely unknown, and secondly, really controversial among the forest professionals who had been brought up in this, uh, what do they call it? The 10:00 AM Theory. Any fire spotted on Day “X” has got to be out by 10:00 AM the next morning. And here’s Wally saying, “No, no, no, we’re going to use fire.” And that really brought me into this kind of adaptive management understanding. We did some similar kinds of things in the longleaf pine forests of the South, that sort of got me into this iterative kind of process in the way you design things and make adjustments. So it’s really that background that I brought very quickly, a year or two later, into an understanding of what we were going to try to do at Glen Canyon.

You mentioned the importance of science in decision making for land management a couple of times. You–you made a strong effort to strengthen scientific research in the Department of the Interior when you were Secretary. At one point you proposed establishing a National Biological Survey to try to coordinate scientific research across federal agencies. Can you talk a little bit about that effort?

00:15:30 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:15:59

Sure. The basic issue was kind of simple, what I, as we get into all of this forest management, river geomorphology, endangered species–looking around, it becomes clear that the biological science–what there was–was embedded in kind of silos in each agency and was very much oriented toward “what am I going to do tomorrow for a particular issue in my agency, in my region and my jurisdiction,” scattered all over the place in Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service. So, the obvious thing to do, was to say, “Wait a minute, science has got to be, one, comprehensive; and secondly, at a remove from day-to-day decision making. You’ve really got to kind of use the knowledge and the needs of the managers, but sort of integrate that into a larger concept of what the issues are, how it is, what kind of information you need, in an ecological kind of a sense.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:17:17

Now interestingly enough, on the earth science side, that’s exactly the way the department was always run, since 1880, when John Wesley Powell came off the river and established the Geological Survey as an independent agency with data and results available to everyone. So the idea was to try to get the biology out of all this scattershot stuff into something resembling what’s done on the earth science side.

And how far did you make it with that?

00:17:50 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:17:54

Well, it was a typical kind of Washington political story. I put this fresh-faced newcomer, this great idea, invoked the name of John Wesley Powell, we’ve got to finish his task on the biological side. I gathered up all the science stuff, put it in a combined budget and say, “Well, you’ve got a US Geological Survey. Now we’re going to have a Biological Survey.” And of course, in the spirit of the times, Congress kind of shot it all down, blasted it to pieces. And in one of these odd kind of throw me in the briar patch kind of sequences, out of all that wreckage, I said, “Well, why don’t you just throw all these remnants into the Geological Survey? It’s already there, we won’t create anything new.” And of course that was the perfect result. I didn’t have the courage to propose that in the first. That is a complete integration of natural science and that’s what we’ve got today. Through all of its ups and downs, it’s clearly the correct model.

So, at a very specific level, you were able to establish a new science organization for Grand Canyon and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. There’s an organization called the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center now, GCMRC. I think it was your effort to create an independent science body that led to the creation of that separate Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center.

00:19:00 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:19:32

Yeah. Again, I’m not the father of all the detail, although I’m happy to claim paternity for the idea. But the important thinking behind that was that even as we consolidate biological science at the national level, in order to get political support we’re going to have to look across the landscape and see how we can integrate science and scientists around kind of nodes on the landscape of mutual interest and mutual problems. And interestingly enough, my thinking around particularly to how it is we were going to activate universities, and not only for their science but for their political clout. Scientists may not realize this, but universities have a pretty big constituency among elected officials. I’m thinking if we can draw these circles of interest, get all of these university constituencies in and give them a reason to be lobbyists with their congressmen, we’ll generate some support. And that support right now is much at risk but in the longer run, over decades, I think it’s worked pretty well.

I’m thinking back to who are the designated stakeholders in the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, and there’s no designated university representative. Is that, I think Dave Garrett told us that you and the Secretary’s designee who participated felt that because he had been dean of the Forestry School [at Northern Arizona University] and represented academic science, that it was probably covered. Do you remember talking about whether there should be a designated university representative on the team?

00:20:57 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:21:30

No, I don’t specifically remember that, but the important point was that he was a university leader and, by whatever name, he was there, and in each one of these, the particular combination of how you put all of the different people together, it was pretty ad hoc.

Well, you did insist that there, that this whole program be, um, report directly to the Secretary’s office, which was an important innovation, and that there would always be a Secretary’s designated representative. Can you talk about why that’s important and how you think it worked out during the years that you were there?

00:21:50 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:22:14

Look, that’s just politics 101. You want to get something done, you’d better not delegate it out through all the existing bureaucratic channels. You better say, “one, here’s what I want done; and, secondly, report to me.” And that simply sends a message, that kind of awakens people to the fact that this is a priority, and better get with it. And there’s nothing unusual about that. I mean, that’s tried and true political administration 101. It always tends to drift a little bit with time and you can say, “This is my project, report to me.” The next secretary may or may not see it quite so clearly. And there may be some kind of geological drift, if you will, out into the various strata of bureaucracy. But it’s the right approach.

One of the persons we interviewed was Anne Castle, who was Assistant Secretary for Water and Science under, I guess, the Obama administration, and she talked about how when she got there, there was no unified voice among the Interior agencies on the, you know, that were participants in the program, and she had to sort of convince them all to try to talk and caucus together and come up with a common Department of Interior position on various decisions. Did you–how did you attempt to coordinate and integrate the different voices and interests of the different agencies?

00:23:19 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:23:59

The bureaucratic answer to that is that’s why you have all these agency heads. Next layer up is Assistant Secretaries, who have beneath them, two or three agencies who in turn report to a Deputy Secretary, kind of up the pyramid, and hopefully kind of enforces that kind of coordination. Uh–I didn’t get much out of that. I basically spent my time on the phone talking directly to agency heads. I mean, if there’s a coordination problem, I’m going to call up the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, I’d call up the head of the GS [Geological Survey]. And I’m not sure that in the long run that was the right way to do it. What I’m confessing is, I really ran sort of wild across all of the bureaucratic coordination and said (slaps his legs), “I don’t have time for that. I’m just going to deal with people and tell them what to do and tell them to talk to each other.” That’s a, if you will, a personal admission. I’m not sure that that’s good government.

(Laughs) Do you, what were you, do you remember what you were trying to accomplish when you were calling up these individual agencies? I suspect you’re probably trying to get over some obstacles or get some direct communication going.

00:25:11 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:25:23

Well, there were of course specific issues. I’ll always remember an early conversation that I had with the president. I don’t remember, there was a third party, there were just three of us, and I was asked in the presence of the president, “What is the legacy you want to leave for Bill Clinton?” And I kept thinking about that again and again and again, because there were just scores of decisions and directions and all that stuff, but ultimately you’ve got to say, what is it that really needs redirection in the most intense way? Now what that meant in my case, I spent a hugely disproportionate amount of time with the Fish and Wildlife Service, because getting the Endangered Species Act in motion and in play was a huge task, and I’d spent enormous amounts of time out on the field all over the country with people kind of saying, “We’ve got to make this act work.”

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Bruce Babbitt 00:26:35

It’s powerful, it hasn’t been deployed. It is the ultimate ecological management tool, whether it’s the old growth forests of the Northwest, whether it’s re-regulating the Colorado River, endless kind of stuff like that. So I’m bonded with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The second orphan during my time there, I think, was the Bureau of Land Management. Park Service is a mature organization. It needs attention, but it doesn’t need a bear hug because it’s got its spirit, its cadre, its support. BLM was a real orphan. So I picked them up off the street and brought them in and said “Look, BLM, you guys have got an inferiority complex, understandably. People think of it as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining, and everybody wants to take away all of your beautiful assets and give them to the Park Service. And BLM is just a dumping ground for the other 200 million acres of land. And I said, “We’re going to leave a legacy for BLM in which becomes a conservation agency, and we’re going to do that from, you know, root and branch. We’re going to start giving you national monuments.” There weren’t any national monuments in the BLM system because whenever something was thought to be a place of special interest, it would go up to the President, and he’d sign an Antiquities Act declaration and give it to the National Park Service, thereby deepening the despair among the few environmentalists that you could find in the BLM. I said, “Stop.”

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Bruce Babbitt 00:28:19

I went to the President with the first big monument proposal, Grand Staircase-Escalante. We drew it all up, put it all together, did all the bureaucratic stuff. The Park Service is looking over my shoulder, licking their chops at the newest unit of the national park system, and I said to the President, “I want you to do something different.” I want you to give this monument, keep it in the administration of the Bureau of Land Management. That’s just one example of a lot of issues, so, the BLM played a big part in the Northwest Forest Plan, and I would say those are two examples of what I’ve been saying, kind of the 80/20 management rule, which is, in any organization, as a kind of rule of thumb, you ought to spend at least 80 percent of your time on no more than 20 percent of the institutions, agencies, or whatever you’re doing. And those would be examples.

So that you could actually not spread yourself too thin, but concentrate on getting something big done.

00:29:24 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:29:31

Yeah. Look at where the opportunities are and where there’s not been enough attention and there’s some real gain involved and, you know, put your time there.

So one of the other legacies of your time and the Clinton administration is getting adaptive management science integrated more into land management decision-making by various agencies. You mentioned the Northwest Forest Plan. That’s kind of where adaptive management science grew up, was in the Pacific Northwest. Do you feel like you were successful in getting, in helping to sort of usher in a new kind of a management paradigm? Because before that, in the 1970s, it was all this linear, you know, plan and manage, you know, you look out fifty years, decide what resources you want to have, and you manage toward that and there’s none of this sort of collaborative decision-making, none of this incremental manage, monitor, and adapt. Do you feel like you were able to change that management paradigm toward adaptive management?

00:29:43 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:30:39

Look, you can never claim credit for a complete victory. Everything–there’s a process in motion, I guess what you need to do is think of it across time. What I would think is–going back to 1990, where there was just you and a few other, you know, wooly-headed academics out there, saying, “Adaptive management, please, hear what we have to say.” It’s really out there on the fringe. It’s now front and center into everything. But it is a continuing process because in a way adaptive management, even as you have success integrating it, it tends to degenerate into a slogan. Rather than saying, “here’s adaptive management, it instructs us to do something,” you get this kind of degeneration in which it becomes inverted: people do what they want to do and say, “This is adaptive management.” Nobody will ever know the difference. So there’s got to be this kind of, you know, really strong, incessant look at what’s going on.

Yeah. That was my next question is how do you feel? I mean, there’s a difference between an academic theory or model and how it plays out in the real world when you try to implement it. Talk a little bit about your feelings about how the idea of adaptive management actually played out.

00:31:58 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:32:19

Well, I think maybe I should get off of the main track and talk a little bit about what I’m doing in California now, where adaptive management is really being put together in a really strong way. This is the whole issue of water management up in Bay Delta system of Northern California, and it involves water coming off the Sierra, the huge reclamation projects running down to the Mexican border, the decline of the salmon runs for lack of water in all of the streams running into the delta, a whole variety of endangered species issues. They have nine or ten regulatory agencies with direct power, three or four federal agencies, three or four state agencies. A huge scientific establishment. California doesn’t lack for science. They’ve got the best university system in the world and a huge amount of resources. There’s a scientist sitting on every stream in the whole state, they’re all over the place.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:33:34

And, the problem now demands integration and experimentation because the difficulty of these issues in terms of trying to find the right water balance against all of the demands, and the obvious degradation of the natural systems, calls for really moving the science effort up and putting the money into adaptive research. The basic problem in a really complex biological fluvial system like the San Francisco Delta is no one really knows what’s going on and what it is that, how it is resources can be altered or managed to make a difference. There is so much noise in the system from 100 years of gold mining, exports contamination, ocean conditions and all of that. But the idea that anyone can come in and just say, “Well, here’s a lot of science. Let’s do ‘X’,” is doomed from the start, without an intensive effort to define what it is that–to set up the hypotheses of what are the variables, and that’s, in a really complex system, a very iffy job, but you’ve got to do it. And then to get the scientists together and say, “Okay, we’re going to use this intervention and measure the results and be honest enough, honest enough to admit failure.” The kind of null hypothesis. We have put up a hypothesis, put resources into this, and it made no difference at all. It’s a hugely important part of science, but it’s kind of bypassed by the politicians who hate that kind of a conclusion, as valuable as it is.

You’re underscoring the importance of recognizing uncertainty both in the natural world and in our ability to–the kinds of decisions we make, the funding amounts that are appropriated, the science that we do, everything is uncertain. Yet for so many generations we kind of, we Americans and we policy makers, kind of assumed that we could know enough, and eventually perfectly know nature and how it would respond to our management actions. Can you talk a little bit more about how uncertainty challenges decision-making at an administrative level for someone like you?

00:35:56 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:36:40

Well, the most dramatic example, I think, is when I came to Interior in 2001 [Bruce Babbitt served as Secretary of the Interior from January 1993 to January 2001], the Colorado River system was full to overflowing [Lake Powell was virtually full from 1996-2000, but fell well below full capacity after 2000 through the time of this interview in 2018]. We had spent some time a year or two before up at Glen Canyon in which the water was up against the freeboards, the spillways were running 100 percent, and it wasn’t an immediate emergency, but we were beginning a discussion of what’s, what happens if the system is no longer containing the input. It was really quite close. Underscoring the fact that all of the decisions we were making in those days were based on kind of a short-term assumption that we had a system in which there was plenty of capacity to deal with all of the demands. And we were actually running scenarios about how we would apportion surplus. This was the great issue that came out of–(unintelligible, both talking at once)

This was the early 1980s, that was that El Niño year of 1983 I think you’re talking about.

00:38:00 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:38:04

Yeah, yeah. How are we going to apportion all that surplus? Let’s get together, but we’ve got to make discretionary decisions. How do we do it? And it was at precisely that point that the nineteen-year drought that has extended from 2001 to the present time began, and all of the assumptions that were being made, quite understandably, about the hydrology of the system, based on own life experience and our own short time in charge, had just been upended and it seems to me that’s kind of a morality tale about let’s be careful about the assumptions we’re making. No, no. We are, appropriately, locked into a lot of planning on the river in terms of drought scenarios, prolonged, seemingly permanent droughts driven by climate change, and that’s important, but let’s not get too certain about any of our models. Do the best we can, but let’s always be looking kind of at the what-if question.

You talked about the importance of getting better communication and coordination between Interior agencies. Another aspect of adaptive management and the Glen Canyon project itself is getting different stakeholders beyond the federal agencies, people who have an interest and a stake in a resource, to come together, to talk to each other, to collaborate on decision making. Can you talk about why you think that was important to integrate into the program and how you, what its unique challenges are and how you think it works out?

00:39:26 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:40:04

Well, look, the need to get people together is self-evident, and there’s no reason to go on about how important it is. It’s important and it’s self-evident. The question is, how do you get it done? I think all of us in this business have been through endless kind of Kumbaya stuff, we’re going to have another conference, and we’re all going to get together and agree to do “X.” And, human nature tends to prevail. Unless there’s some enforcing mechanism in terms of a predictably better outcome that you can have a piece of, or more money, or a stick, cooperation is just a nice song.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:40:56

So money is the obvious one, but there are others. There are nice lessons in the administration, the Interior Secretary’s administration, of the Colorado River, because when the court set the Secretary up as water master with all of these unilateral, unprecedented, overriding powers, there was a lot of fear that this was some sort of giant federal takeover. It didn’t happen. What happened was, it became the incentive for a lot of really great collaborative decision-making. This example is just state-federal. Because through successive administrations has evolved a pattern in which collaboration is encouraged. And there have been, there’s been no big-time litigation on the Colorado River for fifty years since the decision. The states have, slowly at times, not quickly enough, but have continually worked out all these incredible differences, and they’ve done it not just out of goodwill but out of the knowledge that if things get out of hand, the Secretary steps up and says, “It will be done this way.” And so you create a balance.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:42:34

It’s kind of, you know, incentives, all of the soft incentives, plus some kind of real incentive, which is: you don’t do it, it’ll be done to you. So it is important to kind of think those through in terms of how they apply to day-to-day collaboration and what goes on. I have–I’ve spent the last two years in California advising Governor Brown, trying to get parties together, statewide, into a management plan. It’s been very difficult because we don’t have quite enough sticks. I not infrequently tell my audiences when we’re doing all this sort of negotiation stuff, “I wish I were back doing this in Arizona,” because the reason we got the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 done is because I was in office and I had the power to do something really bad if they didn’t get together. So you had to kind of work all this stuff through in a context of, of realistically what’s available.

You’re not the first interviewee to mention the importance of funding in the success of these adaptive management programs. The funding mechanism for the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program is pretty unique. It’s a kind of an earmark of hydropower revenues. Do you remember how that was arranged?

00:43:51 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:44:14

Not in any detail, but that the, what I do remember, really, is it was an obvious cash cow. I mean, it was just sitting there, the source of the problem and the source of the revenue are one and the same. And the other thing that made it pretty easy is, it’s kind of, that’s the Willie Sutton Rule. You know, the reason you rob banks is because that’s where the money is. And the other thing that made it easy is, it’s such a vast amount of revenue, but in the budget process, where you’re dealing with these huge billion dollar figures, it’s awfully easy to come in and say, look, we just want a few pennies. You know, thirteen million dollars a year is nothing. It’s a rounding error in the budget of the Western Area Power Administration. So there wasn’t any real opposition. But the reason it’s so important, and we must get that back into the budget, is I’ve always been impressed with the importance of making modest grants to bring people into alignment.

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Bruce Babbitt 00:45:41

You don’t have to, you know, give out rivers of money. There is something about just the reality of some support which generates more support, and it would be a shame to lose that. And given this reality, we’ve really got to go after that, and hopefully keep it alive. It’s been tremendously successful. I mean, the record of work that has been done in terms of the understanding of these fluvial systems. I see the fruits of that work where, what I’m doing in California now, where much of the travail of all of these issues in California is generated, in an interesting way, not by Glen Canyon Dam, but by Shasta Dam, which is the linchpin, the storage linchpin, of the Bureau of Reclamation facility on the Upper Sacramento River. And remarkably, the operation of that dam poses analogous issues all the way down the river in terms of the fisheries, the food chains, the seasonal hydrograph and how it spreads across the land, and on and on and on. And all of this work that’s been done in Glen Canyon is directly applicable to defining how you’ll go about addressing some of those issues in a totally different river system.

So as a model that can be applied to many other regions.

00:47:19 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:47:21

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

A few minutes ago, you seemed to be re– obliquely referring to the fact that the Trump administration in the last few months has swept the funds that used to support the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program, requiring that all the hydropower revenue go back to the [U.S.] Treasury, I guess. Have you any knowledge of that having ever happened before, when a dedicated funding stream established, you know, in one decade gets swept or, in the case of the Glen Canyon Dam Program, do you know if it’s ever been taken away?

00:47:24 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:47:59

Look, I’m sure this is not the first time. The budget process in the United States Congress is not a tidy, admirable process. All sorts of weird things happen. So undoubtedly, it has happened. And that’s just a statement that, you’ve got to, you can’t take things for granted. You’ve got to keep the constituencies actively engaged in making the case (coughs), excuse me, for maintaining the fund. I don’t think it’s happened before in the Glen Canyon context over the last twenty years, but it’s, I think, the first time and it won’t be the last. Generally, these things happen.

So some people may wonder, should every funded adaptive management program be continued indefinitely? Maybe we should evaluate whether we’re getting enough bang for our buck. Do you have any opinions about this particular adaptive management program? Has it served a useful lifespan or do you think it should be continued, and why?

00:48:48 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:49:13

Look, I’m not close enough to draw a rational conclusion. I do think it’s important to periodically, in any kind of ongoing program, to think carefully about the direction, and the cost-benefit, and the results, and whether this function (coughs), excuse me, can now be internalized into other parts of other programs. That’s a fair question. But in this particular context, I obviously can’t tell you exactly what I think, because I don’t have the facts.

Well, we’re just about to wrap up. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you’d like to say about adaptive management, about science and the federal government, about the Glen Canyon Dam Program specifically?

00:49:56 Paul Hirt
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Bruce Babbitt 00:50:11

I have a feeling I’ve said too much already. (Laughter.) It’s likely to be quoted back at me in ways that I will be quick to say, “No, no, I didn’t mean that. It was entirely on the context. (Laughter.) I was led into that deliberately by an overreaching questioner.” (Laughter.) No, I think, I think this has been terrific, and I understand the importance of this. I’ve always been a little shy about looking back and sort of going into this sort of, “Well, in the old days we did it this way,” to an audience which is saying, “Come on, the old days are gone, let’s talk about the future.” But the past does inform the future, and what’s happened in all of this program really does inform what it is we’re doing elsewhere, and what it is we’ve achieved, and what more needs to be done. So it’s been a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

Well, thank you very much, Bruce.

End of interview

00:51:12 Paul Hirt

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Bruce Babbitt

Tempe, Arizona


Interview conducted by: Dr. Paul Hirt, Arizona State University and Jennifer Sweeney, Four East Historical Research, LLC. Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program Administrative History Project. Administered by Arizona State University Supported by a grant from the US Bureau of Reclamation.


Bruce Babbitt grew up in northern Arizona and has been an environmental advocate for most of his life. He holds degrees in geology, earth sciences, and law. Babbitt served as Arizona Attorney General from 1975-1978 and as Arizona Governor from 1978-1987. He was instrumental in the formulation and passage of the state's 1980 Groundwater Management Act. Babbitt served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior (SOI) from 1993-2001. During his tenure, he was responsible for implementing the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program (GCDAMP). Babbitt has contributed time, expertise and political capital to numerous ecosystem management programs and environmental protection efforts.

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Babbitt, Bruce. ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW. Transcript of recorded Interview conducted by Paul Hirt, Arizona State University, and Jennifer Sweeney, Four East Historical Research, LLC, on 21 Sept 2018, in Tempe, Arizona. Edited by Paul Hirt and Jennifer Sweeney.
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