James Watt Is Back in the Saddle Attacking Environmental Causes : Politics: Former Interior secretary believes that special-interest groups pose greatest threat to the West's ecology.


It has been seven years since James Watt saddled up and headed West, driven out of Washington by enraged environmentalists and by his own maladroit tongue.

But he could hold that tongue just so long. And now, after watching what he says are the abuses of a rogue environmental movement, he's sounding off--in newspaper columns, at cattlemen's meetings and political banquets.

"Somebody's got to scream back," he said.

"After 11 years of reflection. . . I say to you, all my fears are more justified today than when I first voiced them."

If not curtailed, he said, movements such as Earth First! will persuade the "cowards of Congress" to ban all hunting, eliminate all logging and livestock grazing on public lands and further jeopardize the minerals industries.

"I feel that our states may be ravaged as a result of the actions of environmentalists--the greatest threat to the ecology of the West," Watt said in a newspaper column.

These are not surprising sentiments from the man who, as secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, was regarded as "public enemy No. 1" by the Sierra Club, according to President Susan Merrow.

In 1981, her group collected more than 1 million signatures seeking Watt's ouster: "His fundamental philosophy of exploitation was intolerable."

In particular, she blamed Watt for clear cutting federal lands in the Pacific Northwest, weakening environmental regulations for strip mining and hampering efforts to curtail air pollution in California's Yosemite Valley.

"He had played a role in trashing a plan that would have taken vehicles off the valley floor," she said.

To that Watt responds: "The only way to eliminate pollution is to eliminate people and I'm opposed to that."

It is Watt's contention that land should not be preserved for preservation's sake, but should be used wisely for man's benefit. "The environmental movement is preservation vs. people," he said.

Watt implemented an offshore leasing program that offered virtually the entire U.S. coastline--1 billion acres--for oil and gas drilling and held the largest coal lease sale in history, auctioning off 1.1 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming.

Watt tripled the amount of onshore land being leased for oil and gas exploration and doubled the acreage leased for geothermal resources.

Watt did spend $1 billion to restore and improve national parks and added 1.8 million acres to the nation's wilderness system. And his efforts to exploit natural resources made America stronger, he wrote Reagan in October 1983.

"Our excellent record for managing the natural resources of this land is unequaled--because we put people in the environmental equation," Watt wrote.

But eight days after writing Reagan, he rode horseback into a cow pasture down the road from Reagan's California ranch to announce his resignation.

Not only had his policies created an uproar, but so had his mouth--he had banned the Beach Boys from performing on the Washington Mall and characterized members of a coal advisory panel as "a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

"I had outworn my usefulness," Watt said of his decision to resign. "I had made that faux pas about the cripple and they wouldn't get off my case."

Living with his wife in a ranch house 100 yards from the boundary of Grand Teton National Park, the 53-year-old Wyoming native has spent the last seven years riding horses, hunting and rafting the Snake River.

He has passed his days in a log-lined office with a wood-burning stove and a view of the majestic Tetons. Daily, he drives past the National Elk Refuge to pick up his mail at the Jackson post office. He visits with his grandchildren, and occasionally lectures at a college campus.

Watt has not been a complete recluse. In 1985, he turned heads when he agreed to represent Indian tribes in oil operations and hotel developments after previously labeling Indian reservations "the failure of socialism."

In 1989, Watt's name surfaced amid the scandals of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He had accepted $300,000 in consulting fees to represent developers of a federally subsidized housing project.

Today, he makes his living as a legal consultant and keynote speaker, not as a politician. Surprising many, he has not run for governor of Wyoming. He remains vague about his political aspirations.

"There are no openings," he said.

Perry Pendley, executive director of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver-based organization charged with protecting private property rights and development of public land, says Watt could give his cause the spark it needs.

He says Westerners are "non-joiners, they're cattlemen, miners, oil and gas, timber. But what is happening is we're being outmaneuvered by organizations that have appealed to a huge constituency and bankrolled themselves to an incredible degree. If we want to preserve our rights and liberties we are going to have to be similarly active and aggressive.

What does the Sierra Club, which doubled its membership during Watt's tenure, think of a Watt comeback?

"I hope he keeps it up because he sometimes works to our advantage--the more outrageous he gets, the more people we'll rally around," Merrow said.

Watt still has scars from his short-lived Washington adventure, begrudging the media for "intentionally misrepresenting" him, and resenting national environmental groups for accusing him of "raping Mother Earth."

Had he to do it again, "I wouldn't have dealt with the press at all."

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