After weeks of hunting and politicking out west, the James Watt show came east this weekend, to "sell our program" as one Watt aide put it. Pro- and anti-Watt audiences were ready in neighboring Holiday Inns on Richmond's outskirts.

The controversial U.S. secretary of the Interior brushed off his numerous critics at a press conference before a speech Saturday night to the Virginia Wildlife Federation. "As I travel through the country, I find it's the old Ford pickups with rifle racks on the back that have pro-Watt stickers," he said. Anti-Watt stickers, the secretary continued, appear "on snazzy Subarus or Volvos. I'd rather be allied with the owners of Fords or Chevy pickups than the Volvo owners of America."

Reports of those remarks didn't play well at the anti-Watt policies party going on at another Holiday Inn six blocks down the road. There, 150 members of the Virginia Conservation Council, which includes the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, took exception to the secretary's words.

"Do you notice anyone here wearing tuxedos and looking like the upper crust of this country?" scoffed former Interior secretary Robert Herbst, now president of a group called Trout Unlimited. "These are not the rich people. These are people in jeans and T-shirts. These are the average Joes."

Watt spoke by invitation before a generally receptive audience of 200 people at an awards banquet hosted by Virginia Wildlife, a group of sportsmen and conservationists. He made the most of the antelope he bagged in Wyoming recently and predicted the coming year's environmental battles would be between prohunting and antihunting forces. He warned his audience to "be careful" with whom they ally.

The Virginia federation's parent group, the National Wildlife Federation, has been a persistent critic of Watt, calling for his resignation and describing his stewardship of the nation's resources as "ill-conceived, hastily implemented, poorly managed and unnecessarily destructive" in a 50-page report entitled "Marching Backwards... Under James G. Watt."

The national group's feelings obviously didn't stop the local affiliate from issuing the invitation, however, Describing the Virginia Wildlife Federation as more conservative than the national organization, one official said Watt was present "because we wanted to hear from the horse's mouth."

Even so, the invitation was controversial, and banquet officials were quick to say that the invitation was not an endorsement of the secretary's policies.

Some in the audience expressed reservations about Watt's presence. "Do I support him?" asked Kathryn Tucker, holding a wildfowl statuette she won for her conservation efforts. "Absoulutely not. I'm here to get my award."

In defense of his record, Watt claimed to have rescued the national park system from years of neglect and said his programs were putting "people back into the environmental equation." He said his emphasis will continue to be management rather than expansion.

Watt explained a new Interior plan called POWDR, which is designed, he said, to encourage private protection of privately owned swamps, marshes and other wetlands, rather than to spend federal money acquiring them.

While many members of the audience listened appreciatively to Watt's speech, at least one federation member seated on the dais with the secretary was unimpressed, characterizing his remarks as "half of the story.

"While he cuts funds for wetlands acquisition and starts up volunteer efforts that have yet to save an acre, we continue to lose 300,000 acres of wetlands a year," said William W. Howard, a national vice president of the federation.

Watt also said he supports transferring responsibilities for wildlife and fish management to states. He defended his Alaska lands lease sale this month as sound environmental and economic policy, and predicted climatic battles over environmental policy were ahead. He made several references to the antihunting forces who he said would split the environmental community in two. "Hunting is going to be a big issue," Watt said. "We expect several fights this year in Congress. The hunting versus the antihunting forces will be a crucial factor in this election."

Watt told his audience that the City Council of San Francisco had called for his resignation after his widely publicized antelope shoot this fall, on grounds that anyone who would shoot a "defenseless antelope" is unfit for public office. "Unfortunately," Watt said, "that's the kind of mentality we have to deal with."

But the virtues of hunting were never debated at the Conservation Council's protest party. Instead, Herbst and others accused Watt of budget cuts that are "gutting" the nation's public lands and park system.

"Secretary Watt has been the lightning rod in the center of largest and most serious downgrading of environmental lands policy and regulation in this century," said Herbst. He will go down in history as the worst secretary of the Interior this country has ever had."

Many of those who attended the Conservation Council's anti-Watt rally said they were unaffiliated with any of the environmental groups present and had come primarily out of curiosity.

"It was good to see this many people turn out for something like this in good old conservative Richmond," said archeologist Ann Smart. "We were just trying to figure out how you vote against Watt," she said to her companion, Chris Egghart.

"Vote Democratic," Egghart responded.