Watt at Interior: Good or bad for environment?

In a room packed with his environmentalist opponents, the man designated to be the new US secretary of the interior was warmly endorsed by senators from Western states Jan. 7 at a hearing on his confirmation.

"The people of America have nothing to fear from Jim [James G.] Watt," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming of the Secretary-designate for the department that oversees the nation's public parks and wilderness areas.

But those who view the prospect of Mr. Watt heading the US Interior Department less enthusiastically are expected to have their say later in the hearing, which was to resume Jan. 8.

Idaho Sen. James A. McClure (R), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, predicted that Mr. Watt would give a sympathetic ear to the concerns of Westerners about "excessive regulation, unresponsive federal bureaucracies, and obtructionist special interests."

Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington, chairman of the committee before the Democratic majority became the Senate minority, challenged Watt to avoid all semblance of conflicts of interests in his post but offered little opposition to the Republican appointment.

For the past three-and-a-half years Watt has worked for the Rocky Mountain States Legal Foundation, a pro-development group that he helped form to counterbalance environmentalists who have gone to court to fight development in the West.

The foundation is dedicated to "individual freedom, our right to private property, and the private enterprise system," Watt told the senators. He said that in nine courts cases the foundation has taken stands against the US Department of the Interior. It has sometimes won battles, he added, against federal regulations in defending oil and gas development and cattle grazing rights on public lands.

Watt defended his credentials as a "balanced" environmentalist, citing his works on a study of outdoor recreation in 1973. "As man builds his life within nature, he learns, as I have learned, that survival demands balance," he testified.

Virtually all of the major environmentalist groups have joined hands to protest the nomination. "Mr. Watt has argued a consistent series of cases in the courts to circumvent and undercut environmental laws," says a joint statement from five conservationist groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. The groups cite his advocacy of mineral, oil, and gas development in national forest areas, his opposition to grazing regulations to protect national rangelands, as well as his foundation's challenge to the phasing out of motorized rafts on the Colorado River.

"Mr. Watt has endeavored to stymie federal effors to promote minority and social advancement," adds the joint statement, which predicts that confirmation of Watt would represent a "radical change in the tradition of balanced decisionmaking embraced by recent Interior secretaries.

Former US Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, told the senators that his group is "gravely concerned for the future of America's wilderness and environmental integrity if Mr. Watt is confirmed."

Watt confirmed that his legal foundation has taken stands against Indian tribal rights, but said he would support Ronald Reagan's view that the tribes should have more self-determination.

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