Washington — Peace and quiet now reign at the Department of the Interior. At times, things are so calm it seems the entire agency is away -- perhaps on an extended fishing vacation. That being the case, Secretary William Clark says his job is done, and he intends to resign. President Reagan will thus lose a repairman, a conservative who fixed political problems and seemed reasonable even to administration critics.
``I really am [sorry to see him go],'' says Rep. Morris K. Udall (D) of Arizona, chairman of the House Interior Committee. ``There was a vast difference between [former Secretary James] Watt's divisiveness and the calm, fair, considered approach of Judge Clark.''
``I think he did a good job, considering,'' Mr. Udall continues. ``He's probably the best we could do under Reagan.''
William Clark is a close, longtime friend of the President. In the late '60s, Clark came in as chief of staff to then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1973 he moved to the California Supreme Court to help counteract what Reagan saw as a leftward drift by that body.
When President Reagan took office, Clark became deputy secretary of state, reportedly to keep on eye on the mercurial Secretary Alexander M. Haig. Although his national service began inauspiciously (at his confirmation hearing, Clark was unable to name Zimbabwe's leaders), he learned quickly, drawing respectable reviews later as head of the National Security Council.
In October 1983, Clark replaced Mr. Watt as Interior secretary. The controversial Watt proved an easy act to follow. With Clark in charge, Interior Department actions became few and far between, and the agency disappeared from the headlines.
This has frustrated the environmental community, which largely considers Reagan an anti-environmental President. They have been left swinging at the air -- or the shadow of James Watt.
``James Watt summed up William Clark's Interior career best when he said Clark had done `just beautifully,' '' says William Turnage, president of the Wilderness Society. ``Clark was a masterstroke for Reagan, because he had the public-relations skills to cover up Watt's disasters and keep the President's miserable environmental policies off the front page.''
Watt had tried to stop buying new national park land, saying the United States needed to concentrate on maintaining what it had. But Congress kept sending him money earmarked for that purpose. Clark bowed to the inevitable and began asking for the cash. For fiscal year 1985, he requested $175 million in land-acquisition funds. Congress voted him $257 million.
Watt tried to lease vast areas of federal land for coal mining. Congress, annoyed, slapped a moratorium on such sales. The moratorium expired earlier this year, but Clark has said there will be no such leasing until late '85, at the earliest. He is making changes in the leasing program, as recommended by a federal commission.
Watt wanted to sell the rights to drill for oil and gas in large areas of the US continental shelf. Congress banned such sales in selected areas, including the productive Georges Bank fishing grounds off New England. Clark has sold some oil and gas rights, but the Congress renewed the exemptions late last year.
Watt had sought to open existing officially designated wilderness to mineral development. Congress blocked the move. After Clark took office, a Capitol Hill compromise opened the way for passage of 20 bills establishing 8.3 million acres of new wilderness. Clark thus presided over major ``policy initiatives which were essentially inevitable,'' says Blake Early, a Sierra Club lands expert.
Clark is not entirely industry's darling, however. Coal companies are not at all pleased about some of his changes in the US coal-leasing program, although the president of the National Coal Association, Carl Bagge, says ``the secretary has been a strong supporter of the ideals of the American coal industry.''
Interior secretaries are traditionally Westerners, and possible replacements for Clark, who will leave within the next two or three months, include Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming, Rep. Manuel Lujan (R) of New Mexico, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, and Energy Secretary Donald Hodel, a former Watt aide.