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A quiet swan song among wolves and bears

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visits Yellowstone to cap eight years as steward of the nation's lands, when he was both vilified and revered.

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With moisture in his eyes, US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made a promise this past weekend in a place where his own conservation heroes - Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold - walked during the past century.

"I intend to be a very public private citizen," he said.

Mr. Babbitt, whose 500-million-acre domain as Interior secretary stretched across an area larger than many European countries, could have selected any natural backdrop in America to mark the end of his long career in public service.

But he chose to sing a quiet swan song among howling wolves he once carried with his own hands into the nation's oldest national park. That he returned here to spend a frigid afternoon in Yellowstone's picturesque Lamar Valley is a reflection of Babbitt's values.

Many see the gesture as a retrospective commentary on his past eight years as a cabinet chief for Bill Clinton. To the awestruck Yellowstone tourists who approached him as he peered through a high-powered spotting scope at a grizzly bear, Babbitt himself is an icon. They believe his crusades for two dozen new national monuments show foresight.

"He has been the first Interior secretary to bring to light the fact that we are living beyond the environmental budget of the land," says Mike Finley, the Yellowstone Park superintendent.

But Babbitt's preservationist views have clashed sharply with miners, loggers, and ranchers whose identities are rooted in the era of Manifest Destiny. And they fear his visit to Yellowstone is a harbinger of a future role as an environmental foil in his native West.

For the next year, Babbitt is prohibited from formally lobbying the Interior Department on proposed policies. But he doesn't intend to quietly fade away. Already, he's told the incoming Bush administration that he will fight efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural-gas drilling.

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