This past week the news came that James Watt had died. I am not one to generally make light of someone’s death, but the earth gained some sense of revenge with the passing of this environmental monster.
To jar some memories is to remember myself as a young man driving with two friends on a journey that would end with a terrible wreck. Still, I remember well election night of 1980 when I told my friends we must stay for the only time at a hotel on the Oregon coast in driving rain to watch the election results. That was an early night, and Ronald Reagan was swept into the office of President.
Reagan would take only a few months to pick a radical new Interior Secretary-Jim Watt. Watt came in on the foot heels of Cecil Andrus, who, as Carter’s Interior Secretary, had created one of our greatest environmental victories with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which protected as federal lands-National Parks, wilderness, Wildlife Refuge, wild and scenic rivers, amounting to more than 100-million acres.
Then came Watt. His public policy would differ from Secretary before him. He would work with a reactionary zeal to turn back public land law and policy. He quickly moved to sell off BLM lands (Project Bold), describing them as “surplus.” He moved to privatize public resources, pushing to increase coal, oil and gas, and other types of mineral leasing. He also tried eliminating federal control over grazing on public lands, putting cows before wildlife. Most of the statutes were applicable to the Interior Secretary delegate powers directly to the Interior Secretary, which makes clear that Deb Haaland has a lot of power to relist wolves. In Watt’s case, that meant a known sagebrush rebel was now clear to inflict maximum pain. With his distinctive features of coke bottle glasses and bald head, he was clearly a man with a religious zeal to destroy our public lands.
Watt was President of Mountain States Legal Foundation prior to his appointment, an industry-supported group founded by Joseph Coors. Coors created the group to stop the environmental advances that were occurring. Watt voiced unrelenting disdain for conservation groups. Within months he was moving to encourage development rather than preservation of all of Interior’s land and water programs. Watt wanted a dramatic selling off of public lands, which Reagan backed with a plan to sell off more than 35 million acres of federal public lands, some of which were in National Forests. More than 1 million people signed a petition to remove him from office.
Watt made clear regulation was out at the Interior. The sale of public lands and the lack of regulation were met with protests from the American public. Watt made clear there would be no purchasing of additional lands. The $284 million in funding during the Carter Administration for parks was cut to $78 million.
Watt pushed to open all coastal areas in the US to oil and gas development. He worked hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development, promoting that oil as a godsend.
Most damaging, Watt succeeded in getting the Republican Party to cut ties with conservation efforts, something that had been bipartisan to date. Since his time, Republican presidencies have focused on oil and gas development and opening more public lands for development. Trophy hunting interests have grown while Leopold ethics have been replaced with high-powered weapons, drones, and killing contests.
Democrats, for their part, have had a succession of Interior Secretaries lacking the boldness needed to protect large areas of land and expand our National Park system. Sure, some important Monuments were created, but more is needed in our oceans, land, and the Arctic Refuge must be protected now. How about creating a Grasslands National Park or a massive Tongass National Park?
Watt also gave voice to the sagebrush rebellion and, in the years that followed, that allowed substance to the likes of the Bundys and the Hammonds, who took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and were later pardoned by Trump.
Through his radical posturing, Watt allowed the backwash of regulation removal to continue. Ultimately, Watt would lose his job by his extreme positions and refusal to allow the Beach Boys to perform on the Washington Mall, something Nancy Reagan saw as a deal-buster.
Last week, Watt died. Wildlife and the earth can now sing. He remains the worst Interior Secretary of all time. His legacy continues to haunt us.
Never again can we allow such vileness to control our most sacred public lands.