The Clark choice

The Senate Energy Committee today begins consideration of the nomination of William Clark as secretary of the interior.m

President Reagan's selection to become secretary of the interior, William Clark, is a pleasant fellow and an intimate of the President. But he doesn't know the agency or its mission. He has little or no experience with national resources. The few clues available about his attitudes toward environmental issues stem from 17 judicial decisions he made while serving on the California Supreme Court. In all of those decisions, he opposed environmental protection: In 15 of those decisions, he was in the minority.

At a time when the Department of the Interior is in dire need of an experienced steward of stature for the nation's resources, we are presented with the President's utility man. It doesn't make sense.

In attempting to arrive at a posture with regard to this strange nomination, the Sierra Club chose not to come out in knee-jerk opposition, but instead to allow time to meet personally with him and discuss key policy and personnel changes that, if carried out by Clark, could help dissolve the Watt legacy of extremism, alienating the public, and giving away resources.

In several private conversations, we asked Judge Clark to provide some clue about his plans to put the department back in the business of sound management of publicly owned lands and resources. There are many opportunities to do so; for example:

1. Clark's predecessor, James Watt, illegally dropped 1.5 million acres of roadless lands from a congressionally mandated review to determine if they should be protected as wilderness. Environmentalists have already won a preliminary injunction to prevent the secretary from altering management of any of the dropped areas until the case is decided. Clark could agree to settle the lawsuit and reinstate the acreage into the review process.

2. The Linowes Commission, which was the butt of the cruel characterizations that led to Mr. Watt's resignation, is studying Watt's proposed sale next summer of 11 billion tons of coal in five months, almost as much as the 16 billion tons sold by 11 previous presidential administrations over 63 years. The commission's report, due in January, is expected to recommend changes in the sales schedule and to suggest regulations under which the program should be administered. The subject is controversial, especially in New Mexico, where opposition has arisen from Governor Anaya, the United Mine Workers, the Navajo tribe, and archaeologists concerned with protecting the 10,000-year-old Anasazi ruins. Judge Clark could decide to halt sales, reevaluate Watt's program, and produce a more reasonable sales schedule.

3. Watt's lieutenants at Interior are busily putting the final touches on the fiscal year '85 budget, which strongly favors development over protection. In the past, Secretary Watt continually zeroed out funds for national park acquisitions and reduced support for environmental planning and resource management. There is no reason to believe that the FY 85 budget, crafted under Watt, will look any different. Clark could follow the example of William Ruckelshaus, new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and make a supplemental budget request and allocate less of the total budget to development and more to environmental protection.

Sitting in his White House office, Judge Clark made no effort to convince the leaders of the nation's oldest environmental organization that under his leadership, his department would change stripes. Clearly the pressure on Clark will be great to ''stay the course'' in a less abrasive and confrontational way, and continue the wholesale resource giveaway begun by the Reagan administration and engineered so effectively by Watt. His meager past record contains nothing to suggest he would like to do otherwise. The top staff remaining at Interior say there will be no change.

What we need is new policies, not merely the less visible pursuit of the old course by a new handyman. The American public has rejected the Reagan-Watt environmental agenda. Unless Clark changes course, the public will reject the Reagan-Clark approach next November.

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