Babbitt Issues Appeal to Budget-Balancers : Environment: Interior secretary reminds negotiators that a bill sacrificing the Mojave Desert, Alaskan wilderness or EPA budget risks a veto.


With negotiators now trying to make good on their agreement to write a budget compromise that Congress and the White House can accept, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt turned up the pressure Tuesday on both to remember the environment.

Babbitt’s reminder reflects concern within the environmental community that such sensitive issues as the future of the Mojave Desert preserve, oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness and the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency could be used as bargaining chips as the Administration seeks to hold the line on Medicare and Medicaid.

Acknowledging concerns about how the budget negotiations may conclude, a senior Clinton Administration official not in the Interior Department said: “Everybody knows at some point there is going to be an end game . . . everybody knows we’re going to have to give up something.”

But a senior Interior Department official said the agency does not feel that the environmental agenda is necessarily at risk. Indeed, Babbitt’s remarks echoed the tough language in a White House statement Tuesday that President Clinton had not backed off his threat to veto cuts in environmental spending.


That statement, however, was directed at congressional cuts in the EPA budget and not at legislation dealing with mining, oil exploration and logging.

Babbitt, in a conference call he initiated with a small group of reporters, said Congress’ refusal to meet the Administration’s position on several environmental issues will bring a presidential veto.

Inclusion of environmental matters in the two-paragraph agreement negotiated Sunday by congressional leaders and Clinton’s representatives, he said, binds House and Senate Republicans to a legislative package that protects the environment.

The agreement set out parameters for budget negotiations, which are scheduled to begin next week.

But the Interior secretary has been burned in the past. He was forced early in his tenure to fend off a firestorm of protest over the Administration’s attempt to raise fees charged to ranchers whose herds graze on public lands, and over the Administration’s relaxed protection of old-growth forests opened up to logging.

While it is up to the President to put down markers as to what he will accept, Babbitt said, the secretary’s comments put additional pressure on the Administration to stand its ground on environmental issues.

The issues of greatest, immediate concern to Babbitt and environmentalists deal with Republican-backed plans to:

* Open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on Alaska’s northeastern coastal plain, to oil exploration and open the Tongass National Forest, in southeastern Alaska, to logging;

* Begin overhauling the 123-year-old law governing mining on public lands by increasing payments, but taking a course the Administration feels does not go nearly far enough to reimburse the government for valuable mineral rights;

* Cut the EPA budget, trimming by 25% the money allocated for enforcing environmental laws and for cleaning up the most fouled toxic dumps;

* Limit the National Park Service’s funds for operating the Mojave Desert preserve to $1 per year and turn over much of the responsibility for running it to the Bureau of Land Management, which critics say has been lax in protecting environmentally sensitive areas.

Asked whether inclusion of any one of these measures in the budget compromise or appropriations legislation would draw a veto, Babbitt said: “I don’t think there’s any question.”

His spokesman, Michael Gauldin, said Clinton and senior White House aides “have been real steadfast on our issues.” He said that Alice Rivlin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, responded recently to Republicans who were looking for areas of compromise that none would be entertained in the environmental arena.

Still, Greg Wetstone, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “There will be a deal and we have a lot at risk, so we are concerned about this.”