Lightning Bug on the Loose

Sometimes it seems that ideas burst forth at the White House with all the forethought of a summer lightning bug bungling through an open window. It happened last week, as follows: "Gee, if the President's going to send Don Hodel (the Energy Department secretary) over to Interior, why not give him both?" Before you can say Reddy Kilowatt, the idea is buzzing all over Washington.

Abolishing the Energy Department has been one of the President Reagan's pet ideas for some time. During his first term, the formal Administration proposal was to send most of the necessary remnants over to the Commerce Department. The plan died a quick death in Congress.

So, too, should the notion of consolidating Energy and Interior, if that quirky idea survives long enough to get put down on paper. Traditionally the Interior Department has been the federal agency with the major responsibility for protecting the nation's natural resources. Part of Interior's job, as well, is to exploit those resources. The agency issues leases on federal lands for oil and gas development, mining, geothermal steam production, livestock grazing and the like.

Still, Interior can maintain its protective role by stipulating carefully just how and where the exploiting is to be done. It is a fine balance that has been strained to the limit by the Reagan Administration. It would be a major mistake to further institutionalize Interior's exploitative side by saddling it with Energy Department development mandates.

A reorganization idea that makes much more sense has been around for decades: to pry the U.S. Forest Service away from the Agriculture Department and put it in Interior, or a new Department of Natural Resources. Among other things, it would consolidate the management of the nation's wilderness areas under one agency. But even Depression-era Interior czar Harold L. Ickes could not persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to muscle that merger through Congress.

Interior will have sufficient energy development zeal under Donald P. Hodel as secretary, assuming he is confirmed to succeed Reagan confidant William P. Clark. Hodel is a former Bonneville Power Administration chief who is a staunch advocate of nuclear and coal-fired electrical generation.

Hodel is no stranger to Interior. He served, almost anonymously, as the No. 2 man in the department under James G. Watt before Reagan nominated him as Energy secretary more than two years ago. At Interior, Hodel was Watt's ideological twin. But Hodel emerged at the Energy Department as a likable, hard-working and effective administrator willing to listen to both sides of an issue. Under the circumstances, Hodel's selection for Interior is a natural one. With Interior's executive staff riddled with vacancies, his management skills would be put to a quick test.

And just maybe a little lightning bug will have struck Hodel with the idea that the conservation side of the ledger at Interior deserves more energy.

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