On March 14, the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society presented its annual Horizon award to Bruce Babbitt ’65, who previously served as secretary of the interior and governor of Arizona. The award is a means of recognizing great people who have accomplished great things in the field of environment and natural resources law, and to provide a forum in which to discuss those achievements, said HLS Professor Jody Freeman LL.M. ’91, S.J.D ’85, founding director of the Harvard Law School Environmental Law and Policy Program.

In introducing Babbitt, Freeman listed some of the highlights of his career. In addition to serving in federal and state government, he established the National Landscape Conservation System, led the effort to restore the Everglades, strengthened the Endangered Species Act in the face of rollbacks, and prevented funding cuts to environmental programs.

She praised Babbitt for “making progress on environmental and natural resource protection through his sheer ingenuity, his dedication to vision and his personal commitment and engagement.”

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Freeman’s introduction was followed by remarks by Ed Norton ’71, a lawyer who has long focused on conservation and preservation in the U.S. and abroad. He and Babbitt first met in 1986, when he asked Babbitt for help forming a Grand Canyon Trust. For Babbitt, this idea was too small. The Grand Canyon was already protected, he said, and he wanted to turn his attention to building the political will to conserve those places in the Colorado Plateau that remained unprotected. That story, Norton said, was evidence of Babbitt’s ability to commit to his vision and to a course of action.

Babbitt opened his remarks with a brief comment on his time in Washington, where he served as secretary of the interior during the presidency of Bill Clinton. For the first part of Clinton’s tenure, Babbitt said, there was not a lot of movement on the environmental front. Eventually, a frustrated Babbitt wrote down on an index card all the things President Theodore Roosevelt had done for the environment in one column, and all the things Clinton had done in another. Roosevelt’s column was considerably longer. Babbitt handed Clinton the card at a reception, and the receiving line came to a standstill as Clinton examined it.

“At that moment, I knew I had him!” Babbitt said. “After that, it was great.”

With the wry observation that he might bore his audience, Babbitt then segued to some of his substantive proposals for environmental policy in the United States, focusing primarily on the interaction between infrastructure and the environment.

Babbitt (center) with members of the HLS Environmental Law Society

Road building, Babbitt said, has been the single greatest threat to land in the U.S., carving up open spaces, spurring sprawl development, disrupting wildlife, and more. To deal with that, he proposed a radical idea—shutting down the Highway Trust Fund, which collects revenue from highway use and shares it among the states, with no federal oversight.

Federal water management, including river dredging, levy construction and wetland destruction, is the next greatest threat, Babbitt said. He proposed abolishing national flood insurance, which currently incentivizes people to build in flood plains, and abolishing “the pork barrel system” whereby flood control water projects are distributed to states, in favor of an interstate coalition.

Last, Babbitt touched on global warming. With increasing temperatures and water evaporation, he said, sea levels will continue to rise and storms will intensify. As a result, infrastructure on the coasts will be in crisis. The solution, he said, should be an explicit, officially endorsed policy of “managed retreat,” whereby coastal communities and infrastructure relocate inland.

On the whole, Babbitt’s proposals focused on transforming infrastructure with a more national and cohesive approach, with an eye to environmental consequences.

The challenge for those of us who love open spaces and wild rivers, expanses of nature. … and flocks of waterfowl…is to raise our sights and see and comprehend the large panoramas of nature that are now threatened everywhere by random development driven by haphazard infrastructure decisions,” Babbitt said.

The Horizon Award was first presented in 2012 to retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

Divya Subrahmanyam