Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt speaks at HLS



“National land use planning…it’s a phrase that’s never heard in Washington,” said former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to an audience of students and faculty on Monday. Babbitt, an HLS alum and former governor of Arizona, focused on the topic of federal land use planning on a national scale during his speech, arguing that “the current conservation effort is not adequate in this country.”

Babbitt was introduced by former Clinton administration colleagues and current HLS visiting professors, John Leshy and Lois Schiffer, who both praised Babbitt for his commitment to environmental work. Leshy served as general counsel to the Interior Department under Babbitt while Schiffer served as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice under President Clinton.

“I wanted to come and see…if I could distill what I learned in eight years [in the Clinton administration],” said Babbitt, who sought to present national land use planning as a viable means of protecting the environment. Noting that precedent exists of such national control over use of lands, Babbitt pointed to the Federal government’s role in expanding the railroads, overseeing the Army Corps of Engineers, and, most notably, the national highway system, all of which involved land use planning on a national scale.

Drawing on this precedent, Babbitt urged environmentalists to seek new legislation and “persuade the Congress to simply do a [national land-use] plan.” Recognizing the role that states would have to play under such a plan, Babbitt asked, “Are there mechanisms by which we could set the states in motion and get them to do something as part of a national plan?”

Babbitt pointed out that there are indeed ways to enact national legislation that encourages states to act. The Clean Air Act is the best model of such legislation, Babbitt noted, pointing out that under the Clean Air Act, “you put together a state plan that’s acceptable,” while the Feds provide the guidelines and funding. Such a plan has been proven to work and should be emulated in the future.

James Gignac, 3L, helped organize the event as part of the Environmental Law Society’s “Earth Week” events, which included a showing of the film “A Civil Action” as well as a “Green Consumerism Day” highlighting environmentally friendly products such as the 2004 Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle.

“It was wonderful to host such an important and influential figure in environmental law over the past several years,” said Gignac. “I enjoyed hearing some of the ‘war stories’ as well as Secretary Babbitt’s ideas for a national land use planning initiative. His idea of tying federal transportation funds to state land use planning was striking because it’s so simple yet makes a lot of sense.”

Gignac found the question and answer session particularly helpful. “The interstate highway system project of the 1950s literally paved the way for much of the urban sprawl that we see today,” noted Gignac, who added “I think the question-and-answer session identified the major obstacles to Secretary Babbitt’s proposal, such as political opposition and the difficulty of identifying a set of clear standards. Yet it was refreshing to hear innovative ideas, especially from someone who has been on the front lines of these issues.”

The gathering of so many figures from the environmental law field was a hopeful sign to Gignac. “While it’s unfortunate that HLS hasn’t had a permanent environmental law professor for so many years, the Law School has done a good job of bringing in talented and experienced visitors to fill the void.”

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