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An assumption underlying many of the Watt administration's policies is that private works are more efficient and innately superior to public ones. It is thought that public lands and resources will be better managed if private entrepreneurs are given easier access and freedom to develop them. This privatization. Watt claims, will improve the economy, national security and social environment. Nature will not suffer because what is good for people is good for nature. In his fiscal 1983 budget proposal Reagan announced that during the next five fiscal years $17 billion worth of public lands would be sold to the highest bidders.
In discussing that announcement, Watt said, "The basic difference between this administration and the liberals is that we are market-oriented, people-oriented. We are trying to bring our acres into the market so the market will decide their value." Soon thereafter he said the administration's $17 billion plan involved only about 5% of the public lands—a small percentage that computes to a substantial 35 million acres—an area roughly equal in size to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.
The proposal was met with screams of protest and derision. Preservationists were angered by the idea of turning over so much public land to private developers. Economists pointed out that if so much land were made available, real-estate markets, particularly in the West, would become so depressed that the public properties would have to be virtually given away. Interior officials began backing away from the plan as if it were a bucket of rattlesnakes. Doug Baldwin, Watt's chief of public affairs, now says that "privatization" is a nonword at the department, and the $17 billion sale is dead as a doornail. But who knows what would have happened had there not been loud cries by the opposition?
That Interior should lease out some of its lands to private users for farming, grazing, timber cutting and prospecting for and extracting minerals and energy resources was established long before the Watt administration. For example, oil rigs have long stood in the Texas federal refuge where whooping cranes overwinter, and there have been few conflicts between the birds and the drillers.
Under Watt, Interior has dramatically stepped up the rate at which leases are granted. Some 40,000 energy and mineral leases have been processed in the past two years, nearly as many as in the previous decade. Also, changes have been made that give leaseholders more freedom over what they can do on the land—and Interior agents, which is to say the representatives of the public, less control.
The disposal of publicly owned coal serves as a good illustration of the new leasing programs. The Watt administration believes that coal deposits on publicly owned land have been wrongly locked up by past preservationist regulations and administrators, making the country more dependent on foreign energy. Thus, about 120,000 acres of new coal leases have been made available during the past two years, compared to about 80,000 between 1972 and 1980. Last week Watt, ignoring the advice of the General Accounting Office and defying Udall's House committee, put an additional 540 million tons of coal in Montana and North Dakota up for auction.
There's little evidence that curtailing the number of coal leases was, in fact, much of a national problem. When Watt came into office, developers already held leases permitting them to extract 16.5 billion tons of coal underlying public lands—enough to cover the nation's needs for the next 25 years. Consider that four-fifths of last week's auctioned coal tonnage did not even attract bids. Nevertheless, the Watt administration says advanced leasing is desirable as a means of allowing industry to make long-range development plans. A more likely consequence is that these policies will produce speculation in coal leases rather than stimulate production. Such speculative trading was the main reason leasing was first slowed down in the Nixon Administration.
At present the Interior Department seems uneasy about science and scientists. Employees who in the past were regarded as distinguished scientists are now scornfully called "hobbyists." They've been warned about wasting time and money on "esoteric research," i.e., projects that can be defended only on the grounds that more knowledge is better than less. Budgets for natural history research have generally been cut and in some cases eliminated. When Watt came to office he ordered a background check on every scientist employed or consulted by Interior. Those of questionable loyalty to the conservative cause were dropped.