Secretary Hodel takes flak from all sides

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE oil industry is peeved at Donald P. Hodel, interior secretary for the past six months. No, that's not strong enough -- with barely concealed glee, the secretary himself characterizes industry's emotions as ``sheer outrage.'' To support his claim, Mr. Hodel plucks from memory a passage he spied in a recent oil industry journal: ``This is an act of war.'' Hodel utters the words with calculated deliberation, as if savoring each one. ``We will never trust Hodel again.''

The cause of the industry's irritation is a deal Secretary Hodel made with members of the California congressional delegation earlier this month. Like many states, California want no oil drilling off its shores and had passed laws to prevent the leasing of offshore tracts to oil companies.

Faced with the probable defeat of one of the Reagan administration's highest resource management priorities -- the opening of United States coastal areas to mineral development -- Hodel forged a compromise. Open 150 offshore tracts to oil leasing, he said, and keep the 6,310 others off limits until the year 2000.

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The Californians liked the idea and the issue was settled. Hodel was later villainized by an ``anonymous industry official'' in an oil trade publication.

But that doesn't mean he has been lionized by environmentalists. They say several of the 150 tracts should never have been opened for leasing; that others should have been offered in their stead.

Environmentalists feel the deal wasn't much of a sacrifice on Hodel's part -- no deal at all might have meant that all the tracts would have stayed closed forever.

Some even say that Hodel -- who, as a utility executive in Oregon, once charged that the environmental movement was full of ``communists'' -- is in cahoots with the oil industry on this one.

``[Oil companies] say they're unhappy. Come on, what else are they going to say?'' asks William Turnage, president of the Wilderness Society, an environmental group. ``We're not happy with the way this thing turned out.''

As official guardian of the American natural heritage, Hodel is in a position to make a lot of people unhappy. His task is to control a bureaucracy as sprawling and multifaceted as the public lands it oversees, and to forge a game plan by which to manage the country's natural resources.

``You take a tract of land out there somewhere and the Bureau of Reclamation wants to build a dam or irrigation project, the Geological Survey wants to study it, the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] wants to lease it for grazing, the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to put a refuge on it, the National Park Service comes along and says, `Wait a minute, it's parkland,' and about the time you get into a big argument over that, the Bureau of Indian Affairs comes along and says, `Forget it, that belongs to the Indians,' '' Hodel says, referring to six of the 10 resource management agencies under his supervision.

Such conflicting interests also put the Interior Department, and its chief, squarely in the middle of an ongoing struggle between conservationists and developers around the country.

Supporters and critics of Hodel agree that the secretary has so far managed to carry out his task with much less commotion than James G. Watt, the department's combative head during most of President Reagan's first term.

Mr. Watt, who resigned from office as the Senate prepared to call for his removal, was replaced by William P. Clark just before the start of the 1984 presidential campaign. Although Mr. Clark served for only a year, he succeeded in removing the spotlight of public attention from the department.

``Watt would refuse to talk with anyone who disagreed with him, Clark would nod to what you had to say,'' recalls Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Recreation Association, a Washington D.C.-based enviromental group.

``With Hodel there's a real dialogue. He's informed on the issues, he's intelligent. I think he really wants to build a consensus,'' says Mr. Pritchard.

But consensus will not be easy. Many environmentalists have expressed a lingering suspicion of Hodel, partly because of his position as a Reagan administration official, partly because of his past experience.

Hodel was administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and then a private energy consultant before becoming No. 2 man at the Interior Department under Watt in 1981.

A year and a half later, he took over as secretary at the Energy Department; some critics see him primarily concerned with energy development because of his tenure there. But he contends that examples such as the California agreement prove ``the job makes the man'' and that his priorities at Interior are different from those he had at Energy.

Several Hodel actions have drawn enthusiastic praise from environmentalists. They have lauded his selection of William Penn Mott Jr., a vigorous advocate of protecting and expanding national parks, as director of the National Park Service.

In addition, Hodel won plaudits for refusing to allow polluted runoff from farms in California's San Joaquin Valley to drain into the Kesterson National Wildlife Range and for his department's purchase of a ranch inhabited by an endangered quail species.

Many environmentalists have also expressed relief at the pragmatism they say Hodel displayed during the California negotiations.

But Hodel has drawn criticism for his policies, too.

For example, he has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reclassify its lands, a move that conservationists say will open more of them to mining.

At recent congressional hearings, he argued that Bureau of Land Management lands being considered for wilderness status be opened up for temporary development, a suggestion that horrified some environmentalists.

Hodel is sanguine about the criticism, however. The administration, he says, took office at a time when ``the department's responsibilities were not being met.''

Now, he contends, the administration's efforts to develop water resources and open public lands for grazing, mining, and drilling are not coming at the expense of park and wildlife protection.

``When the President came into office, there was a sagebrush rebellion, and there was a possibility of some bloodshed,'' he says of the popular movement in the West that tried to get the government to surrender many public lands, ``[the rebellion] has been essentially muted, eliminated by the change in attitude of the people who represent the federal government out there now.''

He says he wants to mend the administration's fences with the environmental community. ``When I first took this office, I said I wanted to try to start to build a consensus,'' he says. ``I think the current tone of the debate shows we're on our way.''

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