Denver — After what appeared to be peace overtures from Interior Secretary James G. Watt to environmentalists, it now looks like its back to the trenches in the battle over the fate of the nation's wilderness areas.
Sunday Mr. Watt publicly outlined a new administration policy toward wilderness areas that would ban leasing through the year 2000. Following this, William Turnage, executive director of the Wilderness Society had pronounced it a ''a major turnaround in administration policy'' and an apparent victory for the environmental movement.
But yesterday (Feb. 23), after obtaining what they say is a copy of the legislation that Secretary Watt will present to Congress later this week, Wilderness Society spokesmen made an abrupt turnaround of their own. The Watt wilderness policy ''is a cruel hoax. It is a wilderness 'sunset' not a wilderness protection bill,'' Gordon Roberts of the Wilderness Society proclaimed.
Harmon Kallman, one of Watt's press officers, disagrees. ''They're (the Wilderness Society) crying before they're hurt,'' Mr. Kallman objects. ''I don't know what the heck they've got, but it certainly isn't a final version. There are a number of unresolved points which must be settled before we send our proposal to the Hill,'' he explains.
Despite the denials from the Interior Department, Mr. Roberts maintains that the Wilderness Society has a copy of the bill and that its experts are analyzing it thoroughly. They say it bears little resemblance to what Secretary Watt described on a television interview program last Sunday (Feb. 21).
Perhaps the major worry for conservationists in the legislation (at least in the version which is in the society's hands) is wording which would remove all protections from the wilderness system after the year 2000. ''This bill would contravene the perpetuity provision in the 1964 Wilderness Act and open these areas up after the ban ends. It would make wilderness an empty term,'' Roberts accuses.
''There is no notion here to have wilderness protection go up in a puff of smoke in the year 2000,'' Mr. Kallman responds. ''After the moratorium, leasing would again be considered. But that is no different from the current situation, '' he says.
Another provision to which the Wilderness Society objects was mentioned by Watt in his Sunday interview: a deadline for additions to the 80 million acre wilderness system. The draft obtained by the environmentalist group sets 1985 as the deadline for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to make recommendations on the 60 million acres that are being studied or have been proposed as wilderness. Congress then would have until 1988 to act to designate areas.
''This is part of the thinking, but the dates have not been finalized,'' Interior spokesman Kallman says. ''There is an awful lot of land tied up in a seemingly endless study mode. I think it's fair to ask how long this situation should be maintained,'' he explains.
The Wilderness Society also points accusingly to a provision which would explicitly prohibit the maintenance of protective perimeters or buffer zones around wilderness areas. Kallman claims it is not yet certain that this will be in the final bill.
Another concern for the conservationists are the provisions that would allow the President to open up specific wilderness areas to exploitation in case of national emergency. They say the definition of what constitutes a national emergency is vague and that the provision for overriding a presidental declaration - vetos by both the Senate and the House within 60 days -- is unreasonable.