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Environmentalists have been quietly grumbling for months. They're frustrated with the Obama administration and say it's failing to defend environmental laws from Republican attacks. Well, that frustration went public today when one of the country's most prominent conservationists openly scolded the president.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Bruce Babbitt left the limelight 10 years ago after eight years as President Clinton's Interior secretary, but he says he couldn't stay quiet after President Obama signed a budget deal with Congress that traded away environmental protections. It ejected wolves from the endangered species list, blocked approval of some new fisheries programs and squelched a policy to protect special landscapes.

Mr. BRUCE BABBITT (Trustee, World Wildlife Fund): What really motivated me to speak up is that the Obama administration is not responding. It's almost as if the administration is saying the best defense to this huge crusade to do away with environmental laws is silence. And I just think that's terribly wrong, and I think it's time to speak out.

SHOGREN: Babbitt spoke to NPR today before giving a speech at the National Press Club. He says House Republicans are determined to gut key conservation laws.

Mr. BABBITT: I think it's really the worst assault on our environmental laws in my lifetime, I think ever.

SHOGREN: Babbitt fears Obama and his team are relying on the Senate to provide the defense because they think avoiding controversy is good re-election strategy.

Mr. BABBITT: One, their silence is bad for the environment, and secondly, it's bad politics. They're misreading the American people.

SHOGREN: Babbitt says Americans support conservation but need leadership that they're not getting from President Obama.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes says he agrees with Babbitt's assessment of House Republicans but not the Obama administration.

Secretary DAVID HAYES (Department of the Interior): The president ran on a platform of conservation and protecting the environment, and that's what we work to do every day.

SHOGREN: Hayes says House Republicans tried to attach dozens more anti-environmental provisions to the budget deal.

Sec. HAYES: Virtually, all of them were knocked out because of strong White House pushback.

SHOGREN: At least, some of Babbitt's criticisms are echoed by other environmental leaders. They say they've been fielding complaints, some from big political donors. These started after President Obama failed to push a climate change bill through the last Congress.

Trip Van Noppen is the president of Earthjustice, the leading environmental law firm. He shares Babbitt's concern about Congress kicking Rocky Mountain gray wolves off the endangered species list.

Mr. TRIP VAN NOPPEN (President, Earthjustice): This is essentially the equivalent of throwing one creature off the ark.

SHOGREN: Congress had never done that before. Van Noppen says it creates a precedent for booting off other species when there are controversies around protecting them. And there often are.

Van Noppen and other environmental leaders also criticize the Obama administration for postponing important pollution rules, such as new smog standards and cleaning up toxic air pollution from industrial boilers.

Mr. VAN NOPPEN: We've got people sick and dying across the country, and yet, the promised timing and even in some cases the court-ordered timing of these things keeps slipping.

SHOGREN: But Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows says President Obama has made some important strides for conservation. At the beginning of his administration, he signed a big wilderness bill and is overhauling the Forest Service to focus on restoring forests, instead of chopping them down. The president also gets credit for increasing fuel economy for cars and starting to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and factories.

Mr. BILL MEADOWS (President, Wilderness Society): I am a booster. I wish that conservation were a higher priority. I wish that environmental policy was a higher policy for the president. But I'm a realist.

SHOGREN: Other environmentalists say the Obama administration has a chance to prove its environmental credentials in the coming months. It's scheduled to announce a series of rules that would slash air pollution from power plants and further increase fuel efficiency for vehicles.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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