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During these administrations the Interior Department was operated as if there were a broad public and political consensus, the nature of which was recently described by Cecil Andrus, a Carter appointee and the last Secretary of the Interior of this nonpartisan era. "There are wild-eyes on both sides," says Andrus. "Those who want absolutely no development, who want everything preserved and returned to a pristine state, and those who want absolutely no restraints or regulations on development of any sort. However, reasonable people on both sides have been drawing closer and closer together. There was and remains, I feel, a real consensus. It is based on the commonsense idea that we can grow and prosper by using our natural resources but at the same time protect important natural values with prudent public regulation. Everybody but people like Jim Watt and the narrow right-wing ideological constituency he represents recognizes the reality of this consensus."
Like Andrus, many of those prominently involved in creating this consensus believe it to be widespread and deep-rooted. But they also believe that the nonpartisan approach to environmental management came to a screeching halt in January 1981 with the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan and the installation of James Watt as his Secretary of the Interior. And it's a fair guess that Watt would find the above a complimentary rather than derogatory assessment. From the beginning of his term. Watt has made it abundantly clear that his goal is to bring about "massive changes" in departmental operations.
His present prominence makes it a bit difficult to remember that Watt, when he joined the Reagan team, was perhaps the most obscure of the new Cabinet members, a man whose name was virtually unknown to the public. Though a Westerner, as most Interior Secretaries have been because the department's major landholdings and, in consequence, administrative and political concerns are in this region, Watt's background is dissimilar to that of most of his predecessors. Traditionally the Interior Secretary has been a powerful, often affluent chieftain of his party, frequently a former governor or Congressman. Watt had never sought elective office, had no independent political base and as a salaried career bureaucrat and attorney was, as he remains, a man of modest personal means.
James Gaius Watt was born in Wyoming in 1938 and grew up in small towns in that state. He was, by all accounts, an industrious, earnest youth given to good works. Boy Scouts, class offices and the like—and very much a straight arrow. After receiving a law degree from the University of Wyoming and marrying his high school sweetheart, Leilani Bomgardner, he went to Washington in 1962 as legislative aide to Milward Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who had just been elected to the Senate. After serving four years on the Hill, Watt became a Washington lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and then went on, during the Nixon Administration, to the Department of the Interior. There he was the deputy assistant secretary for water and power resources and then the head of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, an agency that he has since abolished. He became a member of the Federal Power Commission in 1975.
Today, Secretary Watt is the best-known member of the Reagan Cabinet and, as evidenced by a variety of opinion surveys, the most disliked public official in the U.S. There has been speculation about his personality: why he is like he is. It has been theorized that as a straight, conventional young man he was shocked and frightened by the hairy, restless, rebellious young people of the '60s, became a premature curmudgeon and has carried on a jihad against what he considers to be the liberal sources of these abominations; that his Western provincialism and religion—Watt is a devout fundamentalist Christian—have made him not only a man of the far right but one of invincible self-righteousness. Such exercises in pop psychology aren't of much consequence. However, given his present position, what he has become is a matter of public significance.
Surprisingly for such a controversial figure, published records, testimony of friends and foes and that of the man himself are fairly consistent: Watt is a loyal, partisan Republican given to the ideology and rhetoric of the extreme right wing of that party. He is rigidly conservative—in all things—economics, religion and general culture. And he's a Western regional chauvinist to an extent that sometimes seems to verge on xenophobia.
Never once in Watt's public career has there been a whisper of conventional conflict-of-interest-for-private-advantage involving him. Even his fierce critics—and it can fairly be said that there is a host of them now—admit that the man is incorruptible. However, from his first days at Interior he has had a reputation, justified it seems, for unapologetically using its offices to advance special conservative political and economic interests, particularly those commonly regarded as antienvironmental.
Watt's beliefs recommended him to, among other conservative firebrands, Joseph Coors, a rich Colorado brewer of exceedingly far-right views. Coors was the chairman and principal financial angel of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver. Watt became its president and chief legal officer in 1977.
The MSLF works to get repugnant environmental laws taken off the books and to hamper the activity of environmentalists, whom ultraconservative Westerners often regard as being on a par with pacifists, feminists, unionists, evolutionists and other liberal do-gooders as threats to the republic. In the 3½ years that Watt headed the foundation, he oversaw 47 litigations, many of them involving environmental issues. In 10 of the cases he was on the opposite side of the bar from the Department of the Interior. Alan Simpson, like his father a Republican Senator from Wyoming, says that Watt, whom he has known for 20 years, and the MSLF staff confronted preservationists in these legal engagements and "broke them of sucking eggs."
Watt became something of a darling of Western conservatives because of his MSLF successes as a baiter of environmentalists. Therefore, after Reagan's election, his close friend and adviser Senator Paul Laxalt (R.-Nev.) mentioned Watt as a possible candidate for the top Interior job. At the same time, Reagan's official environmental transition team was also considering the question of filling the secretary's post. This group was made up of moderate Republicans, many of whom had served at Interior during the Ford and Nixon Administrations. One of them, Nathaniel P. Reed of Florida, had been the assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, perhaps the second most important slot at Interior, under both previous Republican presidents. When Reed heard that Reagan was going to nominate Watt, he got up from his chair, quit the transition team and caught the next plane out of Washington. Many other Republicans who had been part of the consensual environmental era felt, or soon came to feel, that this would be a new partisan ball game.