US Interior Secretary Watt says there is no reversal of administration policy in what has been hailed as his ''turnaround'' in favor of protecting the American wilderness. This is fair warning to Congress as it considers his proposed legislation to forbid mining and drilling on some 100 million acres of designated and proposed wilderness until the end of the century.
Such a proposal does seem a turnaround from an earlier Watt position. Last year the secretary called for an extension of current law by 20 years to permit companies to seek such development rights.
This week's proposed ban is plainly a step forward in the eyes of many environmentalists. As one suggested, it is a good sign even if it only means that Mr. Watt now wants to be seen as pro-environment. It should be noted that earlier he extended a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in wilderness areas from June 1 until after the congressional elections this year. That move was seen as an effort to aid Republican candidates by defusing a controversial subject -- one that had brought the threat of an overall leasing ban by Congress.
But Mr. Watt can still argue that he is not being inconsistent with his basic policy. This is to swing the nation's pendulum from what he sees as overemphasis on conservation of public lands toward what he considers the center or the mainstream mix of conservation and development. Everyone recognizes there has to be some proper mix enabling America to obtain necessary resources while preserving an irreplaceable natural heritage for future generations. The question is whether Mr. Watt is trying to swing the pendulum beyond the center in the other direction.
Seen in this light, his new proposals will invite the closest congressional scrutiny when they are formally introduced. As publicly described so far, they offer some two-edged swords that Congress will have to take, leave, or hone down to one edge. For example:
* Wilderness lands under present law would be indefinitely protected from mining and drilling after the end of 1983. By newly legislating protection for 18 years, Congress could pave the way for less protection later.
* In the meantime protection could be lifted by a presidential finding of an emergency, such as in national security or energy supplies. Congress would have to accept or reject it within 90 days. There would have to be a careful definition of what should trigger emergency use of protected lands.
* Proposed wilderness areas would be at first included in the protection. But they would be released for commercial purposes unless Congress met certain deadlines for designating them as wilderness. And Congress would have only until the end of 1987 to propose any new wilderness areas.
* Land under study as a possible wilderness area could be released for development by decision of the Interior Department. The existing provision for congressional review before leasing would not be required.
Does all of this constitute a Trojan horse, as one environmentalist labeled it, to unduly limit the protection of wilderness while offering provisions to protect it? It will be up to Congress to ensure that the balance is fairly drawn so that such is not the case.