Watt out west: hard-line image with a hint of pragmatism

Watt-watching is practically a regional pastime in the environmentally sensitive West. And those who follow the seldom under-publicized activities of controversial US Interior Secretary James Watt may be wondering whether he is beginning to modify his hard-line approach in favor of some Reagan-style pragmatism.

On the other hand, some of Mr. Watt's critics point out that just ahead is an election in which the Republicans hope to hold onto their US Senate majority and not lose too much ground in the House. There is reason to believe that, at least in some states, the interior secretary's image may work against GOP vote-getting hopes.

Announcing a recent agreement on the leasing of offshore tracts for oil exploration, Alaska's Republican governor, Jay Hammond, stated: ''I deeply appreciate the personal concern shown by Secretary Watt in sitting down and studying the state's position . . . and then accepting many of the state's recommendations on how to mitigate any adverse impacts of the sale. This proves that it is possible to work out resource conflicts . . . through consultation and cooperation.''

But it seems the interior secretary hasn't yet spread enough of that oil of cooperation in the ''lower 48.''

A recent opinion survey by the California Poll showed that 39 percent of Californians sampled had an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Watt; 20 percent felt favorably toward him; and 41 percent had no opinion. A year ago the figures were 24 percent unfavorable; 11 percent favorable; and 65 percent no opinion. So, as Watt and his policies have become better known, his unfavorable image in California has increased.

Nine Western governors sent a letter in early September to Secretary Watt sharply criticizing his policy on coal leasing in their mineral-rich area. Republican Govs. Allen I. Olson of North Dakota and William Janklow of South Dakota joined Democratic Govs. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Richard Lamm of Colorado, John Evans of Idaho, Ted Schwinden of Montana, Bruce King of New Mexico, Scott Matheson of Utah, and Ed Herschler of Wyoming in charging Watt with trying ''to once again centralize on the Potomac critical decisions affecting Western states.''

According to a spokeswoman for the Western Governors' Policy Office in Denver , the governors object to new regulations on coal leasing that reduce the role of regional coal teams which include both state and federal officials. They also are concerned about possible excessive new leasing by the Interior Department and other changes that could mean loss of revenue from coal extraction.

Watt's value as a Republican fund-raiser has been much touted. But what of his impact on voters in general? The California Poll figures indicate that the interior secretary's effect on potential candidates was ''considerably more negative than positive,'' according to Mervin D. Field, director of the Field Institute, which conducts the much-respected poll. Thirty-nine percent said they would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who was a supporter of Watt, while only 8 percent said they might vote against an opponent of the secretary.

The Hammond-Watt agreement on Alaskan oil exploration permits a major lease sale to proceed in a state heavily dependent on oil revenue. In California and some other states, lease sales are being delayed while the Interior Department prepares a response to a US Court of Appeals ruling that leasing plans must be reviewed for conformity to state coastal-zone management plans.

In Alaska's case, the Interior Department agreed to several restrictions on a lease sale (No. 71 - 1.8 million acres in the Harrison Bay area) scheduled for Oct. 13. One outlaws drilling in areas to which bowhead whales migrate during September and October. In another concession, Watt agreed that all leases in the area would prohibit drilling in oil-bearing rock during periods of broken ice conditions unless the industry proves it can clean up oil spills in broken ice.

Other restrictions protect cultural resources and marine habitat. An Arctic Biological Task Force will be established and a system to monitor ice conditions set up.

The governor's office says the agreement meets questions raised by the state's coastal-zone management agency, including ''proper, safe disposal of contaminants such as drilling mud and polluted water.''

Secretary Watt commended Governor Hammond ''for the way in which he balances the interests of his state with those of the nation.''

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