TV Reviews : 'Frontline' Looks at 'Public Lands'

Poor Bruce Babbitt. The Secretary of Interior was twice a contender for an Associate Supreme Court Justice position but remained in his current post because of his value to President Bill Clinton. But his current job means that he must forever contend with one of the country's most unbending, virulent interest groups: Business people who make money off of Western lands.

Midway through his "Frontline" report (produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting), "Public Lands, Private Profits," reporter Robert Krulwich asks Babbitt if he regrets not going to the Supreme Court. "A little," Babbitt laughs. It's understandable, since Babbitt is faced with a powerful mind-set in the West, best exemplified by this report's central concern--the U.S. government's outdated method of selling public land to mining companies for $2.50 an acre, including no additional royalty fee.

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Babbitt's attempts to reform the arrangement, based on an 1872 law to encourage Western development, should get some impetus both from this thorough report and from his May 16 sale for a mere $9,000 of a gold reserve valued at between $8 billion and $10 billion to Canadian-owned American Barrick Resources Corp.

His campaign has thus far been blocked by those pesky business land interests and, Krulwich suggests, a lack of political spine by Clinton. Efforts in 1993 to raise grazing fees on Western public lands, for instance, were met with bipartisan opposition by Western Senators whom Clinton needs for bigger political battles down the road.

* "Public Lands, Private Profits" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

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