Environmentalists have been quietly grumbling about the Obama administration for months. Now one of the country's most prominent conservationists — former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt — is retaking the public stage to scold President Obama.
Bruce Babbitt left the limelight 10 years ago after spending eight years as former President Clinton's interior secretary. But Babbitt says he couldn't stay quiet after Obama signed a deal with Congress that traded away environmental protections. The pact ejected gray wolves from the endangered species list, blocked approval of some new fisheries programs and squelched a policy to protect special landscapes.
"What really motivated me to speak up is that the Obama administration is not responding," Babbitt says. "It's almost as if the administration is saying that the best defense to this huge crusade to do away with environmental laws is silence. And I just think that's terribly wrong and I think it's time to speak out."
An 'Assault' On Conservation Efforts
Babbitt says House Republicans are determined to gut key conservation laws.
"I think it's really the worst assault on our environmental laws in my lifetime, I think, ever," he says.
Babbitt fears Obama and his team are relying on the Senate to provide the defense because they think avoiding controversy is good re-election strategy.
"One, their silence is bad for the environment, and second, it's bad politics," he says. "They're misreading the American people."
Babbitt says Americans support conservation but need leadership that they're not getting from Obama.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes says he agrees with Babbitt's assessment of House Republicans, but not of the Obama administration.
"The president ran on a platform of conservation and protecting the environment and that's what we work to do every day," Hayes says.
Hayes says House Republicans tried to attach dozens more anti-environmental provisions to the budget deal. "Virtually all of them were knocked out because of strong White House pushback," he says.
Setting Precedents For Protection
At least some of Babbitt's criticisms are echoed by other environmental leaders. They say they've been fielding complaints — some from big political donors. These started after Obama failed to push a climate change bill through the last Congress.
Trip Van Noppen is the president of Earthjustice, a leading environmental law firm. He shares Babbitt's concern about Congress kicking Rocky Mountain gray wolves off the endangered species list.
"This is essentially the equivalent of throwing one creature off the ark," Van Noppen says.
Congress had never done that before. Van Noppen says it creates a precedent for booting off other species when there are controversies around protecting them. And there often are.
Time 'Keeps Slipping'
Van Noppen and other environmental leaders also criticize the Obama administration for postponing important pollution rules, such as new smog standards and cleaning up toxic air pollution from industrial boilers.
"We've got people sick and dying across the country and yet the promised timing and sometimes the court-ordered timing of these things keeps slipping," he says.
But Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows says Obama has made some important strides for conservation. Obama signed an important wilderness bill and is overhauling the U.S. Forest Service to focus on restoring forests. The president also gets credit for increasing fuel economy for cars and starting to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and factories.
"I am a booster. I wish that conservation was a higher priority," Meadows says. "I wish that environmental policy was a higher policy for the president. But I'm a realist here."
Other environmentalists say the Obama administration has a chance to prove its environmental credentials in the coming months. It's scheduled to announce a series of rules that would slash air pollution from power plants and further increase fuel efficiency for vehicles.