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Book Review
Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America

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By Bruce Babbitt
Island Press, Washington, D.C

Reviewed by Lee Bumsted

Land use planning in the United States tends to be done at the local government level. Yet oftentimes region-wide perspectives are needed, as decisions made in one community about land and water bear on other communities. Bruce Babbitt, who served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001, believes stronger federal leadership in land use planning would yield great benefits. In Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, he describes how more federal involvement can help preserve or restore landscapes and watersheds.

Drawing on his experiences during the Bill Clinton administration, Babbitt offers examples of successful federal and local government partnerships that addressed land and water use issues. He details clearly the innovative application of existing federal legislation and recommends specific changes to federal regulations to strengthen environmental protection.

“Throughout our history, land use planning has been a one-way street down which we relentlessly race toward government-subsidized exploitation of every resource,” writes Babbitt. “The question we now face is whether and how to create a parallel process that includes a broader consideration of the public interest in our land and resources.” Having decisions about whole landscape ecosystems rest primarily with municipal and county governments is also problematic because developers with their financial and political wherewithal can “overwhelm even well-meaning, part-time local officials and their meager resources.”

Babbitt states that while many people think of land use planning as a local concern, the federal government has long been involved in determining land and water use. It chose the locations of the railroad and interstate highway systems, which led to adjacent land settlement. Its Army Corps of Engineers functions as a federal land management agency, with its responsibility for flood control. He notes that the Corps has an annual budget of 8 billion dollars, and it built many of the 75,000 dams that direct the flow of water within the United States.

The book's first case study is the Florida Everglades. Its wetlands ecosystem was nearly destroyed as its water supply was cut off by encroaching development and diverted to meet residential and agricultural needs. Babbitt describes how urban growth boundaries, reductions in agricultural runoff and a major water flow restoration initiative approved by Congress are coming together to revive the Everglades.

He next examines the Chesapeake Bay region, whose waters once teemed with oysters, blue crabs, shad, herring and striped bass. Even after industrial and municipal discharges were brought under control with the implementation of the Clean Water Act of 1972, the bay's health continued to decline. Non-point source pollution due to petrochemical fertilizer and sediment runoff was identified as the culprit.

Babbitt argues that the Clean Water Act passes off the problem of regulating non-point source pollution to the states, yet states, including those in the Chesapeake Bay region, have not developed the necessary plans. He sees an opportunity for Congress to provide incentives and sanctions to induce state action to control non-point source pollution. He recommends that the act be expanded to prohibit depletion of waterways below levels needed to sustain them as well. Making Army Corps of Engineers activities in a given state conditional on that state's implementation of comprehensive watershed protection is another initiative he encourages.

A Maine dam removal example shows how the requirements of the Federal Water Power Act of 1920 can be used to restore fish habitat. Several years ago, the Edwards Dam in Augusta was up for its license renewal as a hydroelectric power dam. As part of a complex set of negotiations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that restoration of a 17-mile section of the Kennebec River was more beneficial than the small amount of energy being produced. The license renewal was denied, the dam torn down in 1999, and sea-run fish have returned to the Kennebec above Augusta.

Babbitt urges that the Endangered Species Act be amended so it serves as a mandate to conserve ecosystems that support endangered species. He envisions local, state and federal governments cooperating to identify and conserve critical ecosystems, to act before species become endangered.

In Cities in the Wilderness, Bruce Babbitt offers positive, constructive ideas to improve land use planning through greater federal leadership. He writes in a way that is accessible to readers who have just a passing acquaintance with land use policies.

© 2005 The Gulf of Maine Times