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Former Secretary of the Interior and Conservation Hero Bruce Babbitt at Outdoor Retailer

Former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, is a conservation hero. An Arizona native and former governor of that state, the 800-mile long Arizona Trail travels across part of his ranch.
Former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, is a conservation hero. An Arizona native and former governor of that state, the 800-mile long Arizona Trail travels across part of his ranch.

For conservation policy geeks like me, a true highlight of the Outdoor Retailer show was the chance to see former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, speak at the Conservation Alliance breakfast. The Conservation Alliance is an organization funded by outdoor companies to protect the places where we recreate. For many years, CA had difficulty recruiting Babbitt, who served under the Clinton administration and is responsible for protecting areas such as Grand Staircase National Monument, creating the National Landscape Conservation System, and reintroducing the wolf into Yellowstone. Finally, today he spoke in front of 300 industry people to call for radical change from both the Obama administration and the Outdoor Industry.

Although not the most charismatic speaker, Babbitt’s speech gave the audience an insight into his sharp mind. Throughout his speech, he analyzed strategies the Outdoor Industry can take to make an otherwise ineffective Congress care about wild areas.

Babbitt called out Utah Governor Herbert and strongly criticized the Transfer of Public Lands Act, a bill that will “dismantle the BLM, scale back the Park Service, and remove 9 of every 10 acres from the Forest Service.” The bill, if passed, will move public lands from federal management to Utah state level management, including Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, and Grand Staircase.

The former Secretary also criticized academics who support the Transfer of Public Lands Act. Several researchers have used economic evidence to argue that there are benefits of moving land from federal control to private oil and gas companies.

Specifically, Babbitt condemned these studies for leaving out evidence that outdoor recreation provides an economic benefit. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation is a $646 billion industry. Yet Babbitt lamented that the Commerce Department, politicians, and the academics who wrote pro-Transfer Act reports, do not realize the size and power of the industry, and thus, have not been pushing to conserve land.

The speech ended with a call for the Outdoor Industry to have their voice be heard, and also for President Obama to take advantage of his lame duck period to conserve more land. In response to Obama’s most recent conservation moves—including the protection of the Montana Front Range (which benefits the CDT viewshed) and the San Gabriels and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (which benefits the PCT viewshed)—Babbitt replied, “We haven’t got that far. It’s not really that impressive.”

Of course, this is easy for the man behind the most expansive land protection record of any presidency to say. Yet, Babbitt believes that places that we recreate can and should be protected: “Public lands aren’t just the West. They’re national lands owned by all of us as Americans.”

Babbitt’s talk started and ended with a standing ovation. As hikers, we often don’t busy ourselves with the politics behind our trails and treasured landscapes. Yet, as an outdoors person, I was exceptionally honored to sit ten feet away from one of the powerhouses of conservation who makes my adventures possible.

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.