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When I told him that he sounded like a pro-Watt man, Kincaid looked startled and objected. "No, you could not say I was pro-Watt," he said. "I have never liked radicals. I can look at a man's face and listen to him, and I have a knack for knowing what he is. I have seen Watt on television, and I know he's a radical."
They may have arrived at it by different routes, but Kincaid's conclusion is substantially the same as that of nearly all of the leaders of the environmental community and, it would appear, the majority of the public. Watt has made much the same assessment of himself. He has often said that he wants to make massive changes in the operations of the Interior Department, to use unorthodox methods to get it moving in a direction sharply divergent from its previous one. All of which can simply be defined as radical.
Radical departures from tradition are generally scary but they aren't necessarily wrong because they're different. In some cases they are necessary and right. Therefore, unless Watt is to be dismissed and scorned simply because he's different, the substance of his radicalism deserves to be examined on its merits. In making any such examination, one comment by Watt should be kept in mind. When we first met, I mentioned that to a greater degree than in any previous administration I had known or heard about, his was controlled by its secretary and reflected his opinions and principles. Watt thought that an accurate observation, and he took it as a compliment. Therefore, any review of Interior's activities from 1981 through last week must largely be a personal review of this extraordinary man.
Here it must be pointed out that this article was intended to be a post-midterm report on the Watt administration. However, in view of the mounting number of political leaders withdrawing their support for Watt late last week, including Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee and no fewer than seven other Republican Senators, this report might, in the end, serve as a summation of the Watt years at Interior.
A paradox of the first 2½ years of the Watt administration is that in practice it was far less radical than it perceived itself to be or was perceived by its critics. Because the massive changes Watt suggested caused such strong and effective opposition, many of the best works of his administration resulted from essentially negative decisions. A prime example is his parks acquisition policy. It can be argued that any park is more in the public interest than no park. But as Watt has properly contended, rapidly acquiring sizable tracts of new lands would in time adversely affect the management of all parks both by adding mediocre properties to the system and by depleting maintenance resources.
But, because the Watt administration was built upon an ideological foundation rather than a pragmatic one, it had difficulty refraining from carrying its ideas, even good ones, to extremes and therefore reduced many of them to absurdity—such as his ban on acquiring any new parks at all. This deprived Watt of the credit he deserves for his honest attempts to be a good steward for the park system and made the system's management much more of a partisan issue than necessary or desirable.
Somewhat the same thing occurred in the protection of wetlands, another issue in which Watt took a genuine personal interest—and showed it by negative action. He successfully backed legislation that got the Federal Government out of the business of providing individuals with cheap insurance against storms and floods in low-lying coastal areas. Since the feds will no longer be sharing the risks, developers should be less keen about proceeding with projects in these fragile areas.
Perhaps the most innovative program proposed by the Watt administration is one called POWDR (Protect Our Wetland and Duck Resources). Its purpose is to encourage, by means of economic incentives, local governments and, especially, large corporations to acquire wetlands and protect them either through their own efforts or by turning them over to local federal managers. POWDR is still largely a paper creation and has not protected a single acre of wetlands. Critics have claimed that POWDR was intended as a p.r. device for stroking the administration's corporate constituency. However, since protecting wetlands is a complex and serious ecological undertaking, it would seem that involving the private sector in it is at least worth trying.
On the opposite side of the coin, the Watt administration accomplished—as opposed to promised and threatened—some things that seem to be contrary to the best interests of the public and nature. The contempt for and throttling of scientific inquiry and honest dissent within the department falls into this category. The consequences of continuing to try to deal with nature as we would like it to be, rather than as it is, could be disastrous for everyone.
The traditional role of Interior, as defined by Congressman Morris Udall (D.-Ariz.) and many others, has been to represent and defend natural interests and values. The worst of the Watt administration's 2½ years flowed from its conviction that its true constituency was a fairly narrow economic one of entrepreneurial nature-users. During previous administrations, including solidly pro-business Republican ones, the consensual approach to environmental management was based on the premise that economic growth and environmental protection were equally desirable; that the U.S. could afford both. Watt has made it clear that in his view America isn't rich enough to afford the kind of environmental protection it had in the past; that if a conflict arose between economic and environmental interests, he would support the former. The rapid increase in the rate at which public lands and resources have been leased to private developers and the adjustments in regulations aimed at giving leaseholders more—and the public less—control over those lands and resources are the clearest examples of how these convictions translate into action. In this, Watt diverged radically from the notion that environmental protection must be a public work because the private economic sector has neither the resources nor much inclination to do the job.