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Alone In The Wilderness
Bil Gilbert
October 03, 1983
As a result of his words, actions—and inaction—James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, has lost support, even in the West
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October 03, 1983

Alone In The Wilderness

As a result of his words, actions—and inaction—James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, has lost support, even in the West

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During his tumultuous 2½ years as Secretary of the Interior, James Watt often asked that he be judged by his actions rather than by his words. This hasn't happened, partly because some of the things he said so outraged powerful critics that he wasn't permitted to do much.

This situation arose again last week—for what could well be the last time. In a speech Sept. 21 before members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Watt was discussing coal leasing on public lands. His policy of accelerated leasing had been halted by Congress the previous day. Watt was naming a new commission to study the issue, one made up of individuals from outside the narrow constituency of business-oriented white Protestant males that he's frequently criticized for favoring. Unfortunately, Watt turned what should have been a positive step for his administration at Interior into what, at week's end, appeared to be a fatal one by choosing the following words to describe the commission members: "I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

Watt apologized to President Reagan and to each of the commission members for the insensitivity of his remark, but the damage this time, so close to the beginning of the 1984 election campaigns, seemed irreparable.

As SI went to press, Watt was on the verge of losing his job not, I think, because he misspoke but because he expressed himself so clearly. The outrage came because Watt so little camouflaged his true belief. Coming as it did after so many other statements and actions—only minimally less outrageous—that are consistent with Watt's self-professed ultraconservative ideology, I understood last week's remarks to mean the following:

If we could operate in the sensible way of our ancestors, I would consult only normal, decent Americans, that is, fine white men such as members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, we now have to put up with a lot of liberal nonsense. This time I gave all those subversive secular humanists a taste of their own medicine. I named to this board a woman, a black, two Jews and a cripple. That should hold them. But you good people, of course, realize that I was doing it as a kind of joke. The likes of them will have no real influence.

James Watt became the highly controversial James Watt long before last week. As to how that happened, Doug Baldwin, a friend, confidant and aide to Watt for 20 years before becoming chief of public affairs at Interior, says that even before taking office, Watt expected criticism from some members of the environmental community. Nevertheless, the secretary made an effort to talk reasonably with the environmentalists. They responded with extreme antagonism and roused the secretary's combative instincts. "He could have gone around to these groups and kissed their little boot tips," says Baldwin, "but he's not built that way. He is combative in the sense that if somebody wants to fight with him, he'll fight."

The bad guys in this scenario are often identified by Watt as the paid employees of a handful of preservationist-inclined private organizations. He has referred to them as "commercial environmentalists" or "hired guns." Most of them work for one or another of about a dozen organizations such as the Audubon and Wilderness societies, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Friends of the Earth and the National Wildlife Federation. These are hardly splinter groups: They have about 10 million members—or 80% of the organized environmental movement.

According to Watt's hired-gun theory, the leaders of such groups, working through their organizations' own publications and conventions, first convinced their members that the Watt administration was one replete with environmental rapists. Simultaneously, they co-opted the media. Watt has been more than willing to explain why the rascals have had it in for him. For instance, he commented in a friendly interview published in Forest Industries, a trade publication of the forest-products business, that the environmental activists who opposed him were "a left-wing cult which seeks to bring down the type of government I believe in." It should be remembered that some of the people he's talking about are members of bird-watching, hiking and hunting groups.

When I asked him if this quotation accurately reflected his sentiments, he said it did. Our conversation then went as follows:

WATT: Many of my critics want a centralized system in which the Federal Government dictates the use of the water, the use of the land—and I oppose that. I've changed all the policies of the Carter Administration that led to centralized social planning. And some of my critics prefer centralized social planning. That's a different form of government.

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