When national attention turns away from inflation, says former US Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Americans will discover that the Reagan administration is uprooting progress on the environment -- and they won't like it.
"There was no mandate to repudiate environmental laws," said Mr. Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat who served three terms in the US Senate before being defeated in the Republican landslide last fall. Once a foremost protector of the environment in the government, he now speaks from the outside as chairman of the Wilderness Society.
Nelson, the "father" of Earth Day, poured out a torrent of protests against US Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt June 18 at a breakfast meeting with reporters. He charged that eventually Mr. Watt will be a "political liability" to President Reagan because the public supports efforts to preserve natural resources.
Although Watt has said that he is in the "mainstream" of the conservation movement, Nelson said that the secretary is actually in the "mainstream between Joseph Coors [beer brewing executive] and the oil companies." He pointed to Watt's long record of opposition to federal environmental laws.
The past four Interior secretaries have varied in "degree" but all supported the principles of protecting the environment, said Nelson. Comparing them with Watt, he added, "The only thing they have in common is they all share the same title."
Nelson lambasted Watt on virtually all fronts.
* On grazing lands, Nelson charged that Watt's so-called "good neighbor policy" toward Western states will turn millions of acres into desert. Already 225 million acres of American range lands have become "desertified," and the pace is accelerating, said Nelson, in part because of over grazing.
A 1976 law calls for tighter controls on leasing 170 million public range lands for grazing. But Watt fought those restrictions before he took the Interior post. Nelson charged that Watt's announced "good neighbor policy" is actually a "code word for nonenforcement of the 1976 act."
* The Interior chief's proposal to stop buying park land because more money is needed for improving existing parks is "deceptive," Nelson said. Park lands are bought from royalties received from offshore oil and gas drilling. That money is earmarked for land purchases, said Nelson, who added that he would be willing to see some of the money diverted to capital improvements at parks.
Nelson disputed Watt's contention that there are enough parks. In the past 30 years, the number of park visitors has skyrocketed from 33 million to 300 million a year. He predicted that the visits will jump to 900 million by 1990.
* Watt's plan to overhaul the federal office that oversees strip mining amounts to cutting off states from the expertise they need for protecting the land, Nelson said. He noted that before he took office, Watt had filed a legal brief in a recent Supreme Court case calling federal strip-mining laws unconstitutional.
Nelson's sharp criticisms are part of a growing militancy among conservation groups since the arrival of Secretary Watt, who once headed a Colorado legal foundation aimed chiefly at fighting federal land-use regulations. Watt has consistently called for giving oil and gas companies greater access to public lands.
Environmentalist groups have responded by adding thousands of new members to their roles. And even old-line groups such as the National Audubon Society have become act ivist critics of the administration's policies.