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Interior secretary says comment in speech was taken out of context

HELENA - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told a congressional hearing Wednesday that historic Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park should be torn down, a comment that drew a sharp rebuke from Montana Republicans.

Babbitt's office said later the remark was taken out of context. Spokesmen said Babbitt has not endorsed tearing down the 84-year-old hotel, once dubbed "The Jewel of the Rockies" but now in disrepair.

Babbitt was only speaking hypothetically about evaluating individual projects among the huge maintenance backlog facing the National Park Service, estimated at $6 billion to $13 billion, his spokesman said.

The comment was made in Washington, D.C., before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, where Babbitt was testifying on the parks budget.

No transcript was available, but Ryan Thomas, a legislative aide to Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said that as Babbitt was talking about the maintenance backlog, he diverted from his prepared text to comment on Many Glacier, saying: "You know, this is a building that really ought to be torn down."

"He was serious about it," Thomas said. "… It was not a joke."

During an appearance before the House Appropriations subcommittee on the same topic last week, Thomas said, Babbitt commented that the solution to the deteriorating hotel was "a can of gasoline and a match."

Thomas said Republicans made no attempt to draw attention to that comment, because it could have been simply a bad joke.

"We let him off the hook last time," Thomas said. "This time … it's a pattern that has emerged."

Spokesmen for Babbitt did not deny he made either comment, but said they were taken out of context.

Stephanie Hanna, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said the account by Burns' office leaves off Babbitt's next remark to the Senate panel: "I realize that I can't do that."

"Babbitt was not proposing tearing down the hotel, or burning it," said Tim Ahern, the secretary's press secretary. He said the hotel was listed among examples of maintenance obstacles faced by the Park Service that need to be evaluated.

"What he went on to say was that he's happy to sit down with Burns and see what we can work out," Ahern said. "We're not trying to send a message that we're trying to get rid of the Many Glacier Hotel."

But the remark drew sharp responses from members of the Montana congressional delegation.

"Glacier National Park and its historic buildings hold a very dear place in the hearts of Montanans, and I think it's very premature and irresponsible for Secretary Babbitt to be discussing the destruction of Many Glacier Hotel," Burns said. "The delegation is working very hard to save this beautiful structure."

Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., said he was "dismayed and shocked" by Babbitt's comments, adding: "While I presume the secretary's comments were made in jest, there are many of us who are looking for a positive solution to the needed renovations and repairs to Glacier National Park."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., avoided criticizing Babbitt, but issued a statement saying: "I don't think any rational person would want to tear down the hotel."

Hill noted that the Park Service cannot tear down the hotel, because it does not own the hotel. The hotel is owned by Glacier Park Inc., which operates it as a park concession, and Amy Vanderbilt, the park's spokeswoman, said the Park Service management plan for Glacier calls for preserving the hotel.

But Barbara Pahl, regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the hotel's designation as a national historic landmark holds no legal protection against demolition by Glacier Park Inc., if it chose that course.

She said the law would require only more extensive consultation before a final decision - in this case, with the secretary of the interior.

"I would say that Many Glacier Hotel has the same level of national significance as the Statue of Liberty or Mount Vernon, because it's part of our nation's history," she said. "I'd sure hate to see it torn down."

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