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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.