Washington — James G. Watt has been portrayed by some as a single-minded enemy of bureaucrats and environmentalists. But the secretary-designate of the US Department of the Interior does not fit neatly into the mold of a narrow-minded ideologue.
Despite his strong feelings against government regulation, Mr. Watt has earned a reputation from both friend and foe for being approachable.
His secretary at the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation says that although she's a liberal Democrat who rarely agrees with her conservative Republican boss, she finds that Watt "respects my views" and will listen to those who disagree with his opinions.
When one of the other lawyers at the foundation puts up a good argument against a position Watt has taken, she says, "he'll fume and fuss" at first, but afterwards say how glad he is to have that person on the staff.
Even his constant adversary for the past three years, Tony Ruckel of the sierra Club's Legal Defense Fund in Denver, gives Watt credit for being personable and open.
Still, there's little doubt that the Wyoming-born Watts has firmly planted himself in the conservative camp. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in commerce and industry, he spent several months interviewing businessmen about their problems, for a study.Later, as a lawyer, he took a post with the US Chamber of Commerce developing policy in the areas of mining, public lands, and pollution.
He was a senatorial aide for a time, then served in the Nixon-Ford administration from 1969 to 1975 as director of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation of the Department of the Interior.
Responding to the spirit of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" in Western states, teetotaler Watt teamed up with beer company executive William K. Coors 3 1/2 years ago to form the Mountain States Legal Foundation and wage war in the courtroom on "restrictive" federal regulation,. The foundation supports oil and gas developers and ranchers who are seeking use of public lands, and in 10 lawsuits it has opposed the department that Watt is now asked to run.
In order to avoid conflict-of-interest problems, Watt says he will sever ties with the Mountain States Legal Foundation and excuse himself, as Secretary of the Interior, from dealing with lawsuits that he helped brong against the department he now will head.
Major environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club, charge that Watt, as interior secretary, will be the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop when it comes to protecting wilderness areas, forests, and the US continental shelf from developers.
But Watt promises a "balanced" policy of protection and development.