Washington — The resignation of James G. Watt removes from the scene a strident personality who, for the past three years, has by his very presence inflamed debate over many environmental issues.
Mr. Watt was an interior secretary who roused passions. Tall, owlish behind his glasses, he seemed fervently to believe that his pro-development policies were what America needed, and was less than subtle in jousting with his opponents. At various times he likened environmentalists to storm troopers, and divided US citizens into two categories: liberals and Americans.
Many industry groups saw in Watt a high government official who, for once, understood their problems. At a briefing earlier this year the outspoken Carl E. Bagge, head of the National Coal Association, said simply, ''We love him.''
But environmental groups, roused by his policies, focused on Watt personally as a way of rallying the faithful and defining discussion about such issues as coal leasing, offshore oil drilling, and new parkland aquisition.
The call for Watt's ouster solidified Washington's sometimes-splintered corps of environmental activists. In fact, earlier this year representatives from nine different environmental groups held a joint press conference solely to denounce the interior secretary. At that time, William Turnage, director of the Wilderness Society and a man with a personality as strong as Watt's, said flatly that there would be a new interior secretary within six months. Mr. Turnage's prediction was off by nine days.
In the end, Watt departed in the way that so many public officials go: tripped up by a matter of style.
Though in September Watt battled Congress and a federal judge over the substance of his coal lease policy, it was a chance remark about the makeup of a coal advisory panel - ''I have a black,'' he said, ''I have a women, two Jews, and a cripple'' - that occasioned his downfall.
''If he'd been more clever about it, he probably wouldn't have been thrown out of office at this time,'' admits Wilderness Society chairman Gaylord Nelson.
However, unlike Ann Burford, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Watt was not tied up and thrown overboard by his own administration. It was rapidly deteriorating support among Republicans in Congress, particularly among senators, that reportedly convinced Watt to resign.
A Senate resolution calling for Watt's departure was scheduled to come to the floor after the Columbus Day recess, and ''it would have been an overwhelming bipartison vote against him,'' says Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia, sponsor of the resolution.
The question now, of course, is what happens to Interior Department programs without Watt.
Besides attempting to ban the Beach Boys from a concert at the Washington Monument, Watt during his term in office has cut way back on parkland purchases, saying funds were needed for maintainence of existing parks. He greatly expanded lease sales for oil exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf and for federally owned coal lands in the West. He has attempted, unsuccessfully, to quicken economic activity in National Wildlife Refuges.
Most observers say President Reagan has two clear options open to him. Under the first scenario, the President appoints a Western conservative in the Watt mold, but without Watt's inflammatory personality - former Wyoming Sen. Clifford Hanson is widely mentioned - and pushes forward with unchanged goals.
Another choice for Watt's replacement that would fit this criterion is Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R) of New Mexico, ranking Republican on the House Interior Committee.
But some Republicans are pushing a second option - clear softening at Interior, to help stop Democrats from grabbing the high road on the environment issue for the 1984 elections. The theory behind this option is that the appointment of William Ruckelshaus, a relative moderate, at EPA has turned into a real plus for the administration, so a similar move at the Interior Department might do the same.
''It's going to be somebody from the Rocky Mountains. The question is are they going to lean as far on the development side as Watt?'' asks Gaylord Nelson of the Wilderness Society.