A former law client of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would be the big winner if a plan Babbitt is promoting for future development of the Grand Canyon is adopted.

Babbitt, whose department includes the National Park Service, has called for creation of "gateway villages" outside Grand Canyon National Park where visitors would leave their cars to board mass transit to tour the park.His former client, a Scottsdale-based development company called Canyon Forest Village Corp., wants to build a planned community at Tusayan, the only town within 50 miles of the park's main entrance. The company plans hotels, restaurants, shops and visitor orientation centers as well as housing it says would be affordable for park employees in the town seven miles south of canyon rim.

Interior Department spokesman Kevin Sweeney says Babbitt has severed all ties with Canyon Forest Village and "as secretary he naturally would recuse himself from any decisions that involve Canyon Forest."

"But you can't expect him to not speak out on subjects he feels deeply about just because he is now Interior secretary. That's absurd," Sweeney said.

Babbitt himself refused to be interviewed on the subject.

But he told a gathering of environmentalists and canyon enthusiasts in October his position on development within the park has not changed over the years.

"I've been preaching these ideas for the last 30 years . . . as a private citizen, as an environmentalist, as governor of Arizona," Babbitt said.

Babbitt was attorney for Canyon Forest for three years, until just before he was sworn in as Interior secretary, said Tom De Paolo, the company's managing partner.

"I think he took on this project not as a lawyer looking for a fee, but as something that represented what he had been trying to achieve long before we ever came on the scene," De Paolo said.

It would be difficult to find a land issue in northern Arizona without a potential conflict for Babbitt, whose family has vast ranching and mercantile holdings in the area.

The only grocery store in the Grand Canyon National Park is Babbitt Brothers Trading Co. He divested his interest in the family concern that runs Babbitt Brothers after his appointment, Sweeney said.

He was forced to sell his interest in the family cattle company when some of its land figured in an Indian land settlement that the Interior Department helped negotiate before he was nominated.

And Babbitt served on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group that lobbies on many issues affecting the canyon and use of federal land on the Colorado Plateau that stretches from northern Arizona into Utah and Colorado.

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De Paolo acknowledged it is "a reasonable assumption" that his project would benefit from crowds generated by having the community designated a staging area for the canyon. But he said it would succeed whether or not the gateway village concept is formally adopted because there's aready a shortage of lodging, retail and housing in the area.

"It fills a void that has existed there for many years," De Paolo said.

The development is contingent on completion of a land exchange between the company and the U.S. Forest Service, De Paolo says. He says the company wants to exchange 1,160 acres it owns in Kaibab National Forest for 600 acres of Forest Service land.

Babbitt lacks direct say in that matter since the Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department rather than Interior.

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