• U.S.

The Legacy of James Watt

3 minute read

His legions of eager critics will not have James Watt to kick around any more. Indeed, Watt will probably be most remembered for the kind of righteous, goading declarations that finally forced his resignation: long before his crack about “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple,” Watt had said that the electorate is composed of “liberals and Americans” and that Beach Boys fans are riffraff. But Watt did more than just make inflammatory pronouncements. He pushed through radical changes in Interior policy, most of which are likely to endure at least as long as Ronald Reagan is President. And some elements of the Watt legacy are irrevocable.

Watt’s policies broke dramatically with those Interior had pursued under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. He veered hard to the right, away from unalloyed concern for environmental preservation, and toward commercial use of the Government’s vast land holdings. Remarkably, he wrought deep changes mainly without changing laws; his tools were budgetary finesse, regulatory manipulation and personnel shifts. “He was a consummate bureaucrat,” says National Wildlife Federation Executive Lynn Greenwalt, an erstwhile Watt colleague at Interior. “He knew how to make a big, sprawling agency do what he wanted.”Watt’s trouble was that he tended to go too far, gratuitously provoking environmentalists and a wary public. Among his controversial actions:

Strip Mining. Despite an internal mutiny, Watt closed down offices of the regulatory Office of Surface Mining, and had 93% of the OSM rules rewritten to make them looser. Critics say the effect is to permit environmental damage.

Wilderness. While spending more for the upkeep of national parks and adding facilities for the handicapped, Watt put a virtual moratorium on the acquisition of new land and even resisted accepting acreage that private owners offered to donate. Furthermore, Watt proposed that at the turn of the century all 80 million acres of virginal U.S. wilderness could become available for drilling and mining.

Land Leasing. The leasing of coal lands during a market glut (at a loss of $100 million, according to the General Accounting Office) prompted the creation of a coal-leasing review panel, and Watt’s insensitive description of the panel’s “balance” precipitated his exit. Overall, the federal land leased to coal-mining companies more than quintupled under Watt. Conservationists fear that many leases were granted hastily, without proper environmental impact studies.

Offshore Oil Leasing. Watt offered practically the entire outer continental shelf to oil-company bidders. Instead of explaining that only a fraction of the area offered would be drilled, he bragged about leasing “a billion acres” of U.S. coastal waters. Even the industry beneficiaries found the Secretary dangerously gung-ho. Said Standard Oil Co. of California Chairman George Keller: “Jim Watt has done more to harm our industry than any other Government official in recent history. You couldn’t carry on a conversation with him without getting aggravated.” Watt would not even carry on a conversation with some environmental groups, whom he dismissed as “left-wingers.” Thus, while several of his policy changes were sensible—he reformed the chaotic oil-lease payment system, and faced up to the fact that the park system cannot simply expand forever—Watt’s crusading pugnaciousness often obscured the merits and demerits of the issues.

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