The Watt 'good neighbor' policy

Who could really say that an air of postelection political flexibility is not permeating the land? There it was, after all, in headline form in the morning papers. Stories that Interior Secretary James Watt - yes, James Watt - was actually backing offm on some of his controversial policies announced this past summer. At the insistence of a group of Western state governors, Mr. Watt has accepted some 16 major changes in rules regarding federal coal leasing decisions.

Mr. Watt deserves plaudits for responding to the governors. So do the governors for vigorously pressing their position on the Interior Department, which only too often has tended to pursue its development and leasing policies with little regard for the concerns of states, environmental groups, or the American public. If the sudden about-face on the part of the Interior Department over the coal leasing provisions suggests anything, it is that continued public pressure regarding other equally controversial Interior department policies might also lead to a new spirit of compromise.

The dubious federal coal leasing policy challenged by the Western governors came about because of a decision made by the Interior Department this past summer to allow Interior to override and ignore leasing recommendations pertaining to federal lands made by regional groups. The groups, called Regional Coal Teams, were set up during the Carter years and included both federal and state officials. The teams were designed to provide for an orderly level of coal leasing on federal lands consistent with both public and state needs. The teams were never intended to prevent Interior from leasing such lands for development but rather to make certain that local jurisdictions could adequately handle the social and economic changes that would invariably take place as a result of leasing.

By deciding to override the recommendations of such teams, the Interior Department threatened to make a shambles of any ''new federalism'' between the states and federal government. In one case, for example, the Interior Department leased up to 1.2 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, even though a regional team had recommended a leasing of no more than 800 million tons.

Changes in the Interior Department policy proposed by the governors - and accepted by Mr. Watt - allow the regional teams to recommend preferred levels of leasing and require that, if the department overrides such recommendations, the secretary must explain why in a written statement.

Mr. Watt says that his shift on the coal policy is proof that his ''good neighbor'' policy towards the Western states is working.

If that is so, then it would seem only logical that the Interior Department follow up with more of a ''good neighbor'' policy across the board.

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