In his push to open United States public lands to greater private development , Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt may run into some opposition from an unexpected quarter.
Even before the conservative Coloradan was confirmed by the Senate in his important Cabinet post, he had in his outspoken fashion drawn battle lines with the nation's environmental movement. That he would become the target of dedicated conservationists and many Democrats -- as he has -- was clear.
But pollsters and other keen observers in this region now say that Mr. Watt probably is in for stiff opposition of another brand --from Western Republicans who may have voted to get government off their backs last fall, but who are also jealously protective of the vast public lands which have become their playground.
"He is on a collision course with an awful lot of constituencies out here," says Earl deBerge, director of the Rocky Mountain Poll. "There's a lot of protectionism in the public eye about the opening of public lands. I don't think people see Watt as a laissez-faire policy type of person yet. But I think they will. And then a tough fight will be waged."
There is a general feeling among Western pollsters and political analysts that the depth of environmental sentiment in the Western states has been miscalculated. It is a lack of understanding which was reflected in a recent comment by one of Secretary Watt's press aides: "You know, I have the feeling that most of the environmentalists are based along the coast and that once you move inland, things change."
Although observers like Mr. deBerge say it is far too early to determine what conservative opposition Watt will face, they note that Western Republicans include a mix of retirees who moved west from urban centers to enjoy the region's climate and open spaces; old-timers who have a strong attachment to these public lands; and younger, outdoor-oriented conservatives like one young Nevada homeowner who says, "Just because I voted for Reagan doesn't mean I like Watt."
"It's very clear that conservation as an issue doesn't line up very neatly with normal ideological positions," says Raymond Wolfinger, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "It would be a big mistake to think people who are Republicans are all against conservation."
Already, there are rumblings of Western discontent. In the wake of the Sierra Club's announcement last month that it was launching a petition drive to ask for Watt's removal, the Idaho Statesman editorialized: "More power to the Sierra Club. . . ."
The April 22 editorial criticized Watt for turning environmentalism into "a dirty word" and for portraying environmentalists as "Commies bent upon destroying the American way of life." By "being so blatantly obnoxious," continued the editorial, Watt might arouse "millions of nature-lovers" who have been quiet so far.
Observers note that many voters have become disenchanted with the militant environmentalism of the early 1970s and recognize a need for greater exploration for energy resources. But, say public opinion analysts, such a shift in voter opinion does not necessarily mean a desire to weaken the environmental protections passed in the last decade.
"There's a lot of latent, more than latent, feeling for the environment," says Mervin Field, who directs the California Poll. "It's a real kinetic force that any despoling of the environment would touch off.
"There's plenty of data to show that now the public really doesn't think it has to trade-off environmental safeguards for energy, or anything else," he continues. "They really believe they can have both."
As political observers wait for Watt to follow through on his declared intentions of opening public lands for greater energy, timber, and mining exploration, they speculate that the Interior Secretary may prove to be a political liability for President Reagan.
Case in point: the Sierra Club says it expects that by midsummer nearly 1 million signatures will have been collected in their "impeach Watt" drive. Those signatures, say environmentalists, will be used to try persuade members of Congress that backing Watt's policies may be politically unwise.
And in California, Watt has already squared off for a showdown on offshore oil drilling in President Reagan's home state of California. That fight, which has prompted two lawsuits filed by a coalition of environmentalists and by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., has prompted speculation that the secretary may be embarrassing the President, who seldom earned poor marks for his stand on the environment while governor of California.
But in an April 24 interview with the Sacramento Bee, presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, said that Reagan fully supports Watt's push for greater commercial development of public lands.