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Inside Interior: An Abrupt Turn
Bil Gilbert
September 26, 1983
That the bison now faces right represents more than a change in an Interior Department seal. It reflects the views of Secretary James Watt and augurs trouble for many environmentalists. The first of two parts
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September 26, 1983

Inside Interior: An Abrupt Turn

That the bison now faces right represents more than a change in an Interior Department seal. It reflects the views of Secretary James Watt and augurs trouble for many environmentalists. The first of two parts

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For a species to warrant federal protection it must first be listed by the Secretary of the Interior as threatened or endangered—in a sense be certified as a truly needy plant or animal. Thereafter, as staff and funds become available, a committee will be designated to draw up a recovery plan, a set of recommendations about what might be done to improve the situation of the species. The position of the Watt administration is similar to that which it has assumed regarding national parks: that rather than acquire new federal responsibilities—in this case more endangered species—it's wiser to pay closer attention to the ones already on hand. Therefore, the emphasis has been on drawing up recovery plans rather than listing new endangered species. During Watt's tenure 261 recovery plans have been approved or drafted, as compared to 98 during the four years of the Carter Administration. On the other hand, during Watt's time only 17 new species have been given endangered status while in the previous administration 103 were so listed.

From the viewpoint of preservationists, there's a weakness in the drawing-up-more-recovery-plans approach. Listing a species as endangered puts it under federal protection and confers immediate benefits on it as well as its habitat. Recovery plans, on the other hand, are simply administrative reports that have no impact on a species or the lands and water it inhabits until work begins in the field. In this regard, the efforts of the Watt administration have been minimal to negative. No significant new recovery work has been accomplished. Funding for existing recovery operations has leveled off or been reduced, and the administration also proposed to cut the budget for enforcement of the endangered species law from $5.7 million in 1983 to $4.9 million in 1984. Congress approved $6.1 million, a 24% increase over Interior's request. On this question Watt's words—"We will use the budget system to be the excuse to make major policy decisions"—are hard to forget.

THE WILDERNESS

In 1964 Congress passed and President Johnson signed an act calling for certain public lands to be dedicated as wilderness, i.e., tracts that would remain essentially and perpetually undeveloped. Federal agencies—the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service—were to study their holdings to determine which parcels should be recommended for wilderness designation. Thus far about 80 million acres have been placed in the Wilderness Preservation System; these lands will be closed to development this December. Some 24 million acres still regarded as candidates for wilderness designation are administered by the BLM.

When Watt began talking about how much public land had wrongfully been "locked up" from development and how he intended to do considerable unlocking, there was instant speculation that what he was really talking about was the wilderness system—how to develop on designated lands and keep more parcels from being preserved as wilderness. These fears were quickly confirmed.

In May 1981 Watt sent a memo to his top appointees outlining objectives for them. One of the goals assigned Solicitor of the Interior Department William H. Coldiron, previously the legal counsel and vice-chairman of the board of the Montana Power Company, was to "open wilderness areas." No three words have since caused the Watt administration as much difficulty as "open wilderness areas."

Toward the end of 1981 Watt told the National Petroleum Council, "We're working with the Department of Agriculture...to establish leasing procedures for oil and gas resources in wilderness areas...." Later he proposed legislation that would give the President greater freedom to open wilderness areas to development if he found "urgent national need to do so." When the fine print of this proposal was digested. Congress objected and even refused to hold hearings on what some critics called "the Wilderness Sunset Bill." Simpson, generally a supporter of the administration, said he "just told Jim that's nuts." Simpson said the entire Wyoming delegation felt similarly. "There's a lot of places to punch holes rather than the wilderness," says Simpson. "So we said so. I think Jim was a little surprised."

Perhaps because of such surprises, Watt, by mid-1982, was taking the position that he thought almost as well of wilderness as he did of parks. And to prove it, he'd handle the wilderness in much the same way: He would protect the existing system but was not inclined to expand it much or at all. This focused attention on the 24 million acres of BLM land still being considered for wilderness status. Conservationists feared that those acres might be opened to developers, and once they were. Watt would claim that the lands were no longer suitable for wilderness designation. To forestall any such end-around play, the House of Representatives, in September 1982, approved by a 340-58 margin a one-year ban on development in any wilderness study areas. Despite having 54 co-sponsors in the Senate, the proposed ban never reached a formal vote there. Secretary Watt ignored this legislative expression of opinion and proceeded to process leases on the land.

Perhaps more than any other issue, the wilderness controversy has led to the perception that many high Interior officials are as handicapped in dealing with nature as a tone-deaf person would be in conducting an orchestra. There's a sense that they are essentially men of business, law or politics who have little feeling for natural phenomena. Having, for example, never thrashed through chaparral to the top of a cliff and lain there watching eagles wheel in the sky, they can little understand why so many people get their sails in knots over suggestions that it might be good policy to shoot a few eagles to help sheep ranchers.

Certainly Watt's feelings about the wild are a matter of legitimate public interest. When Watt was asked if he would talk a little about what value wilderness has for the republic, he said no, because one cannot define wilderness. It means too many different things to too many different people. For example, he said, some Americans might think having a picnic in a park was a wilderness experience. He said he didn't claim to be a passionate outdoorsman, but that he did, when he had time, enjoy walking around the environs of Washington and that he had a kayak that he sometimes paddled. Then he told of his grandparents, who had settled along a Wyoming stream, built a dam and caused the flora and fauna to flourish. That was as far as he would go on the subject.

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