Interior Secretary-designate James G. Watt said yesterday he would seek no major change in the basic federal environmental and land-use laws, but would work within them to increase production of energy and strategic minerals from public lands.
Seeking in part to assuage environmentalists sharply critical of his nomination, he referred to his forthcoming term as the man in charge of much of the West as a "period of consolidation" in which he would pay "massive attention to good management."
"I do not come to this committee criticizing the basic acts that have been passed in these last few years," Watt said. "I want to focus my attention [on] managing programs already on the books."
The positions Watt said he would advocate as secretary will be based on four goals that he and President-elect Ronald Reagan agreed upon during a 20-minute meeting, the only time he has talked to Reagan, Watt said. They are: to make more public lands available for multiple uses rather than limiting them to recreation or wilderness or other single uses; to develop a policy for production of strategic minerals; to maintain public access to and upgrade the management of parks and recreational lands, and to work toward national self-sufficiency in energy.
The opening day of hearings on Watt's nomination was marked by generally amiable questions, most focusing on positions taken by the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver where Watt is president and chief legal officer.
Watt said he would sever ties with the 3 1/2-year-old foundation. But he said also he would reserve the option of acting on cases that the organization might bring against the Interior Department in the future. The foundation's position on an issue could conceivably be the correct one, he said.
In answer to questions on his views, Watt said the emphasis on reclamation in the laws governing strip mining must be continued, although regulations hindering state primacy in administering the laws should be changed. In contrast to views that Reagan has voiced, Watt said the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act need no major changes, only better administration.
The Sagebrush Rebellion, the effort by a number of western states to assert more control over federally owned lands, must be "defused" by an end to "arrogant land management" at Interior, Watt said. "If we don't shape up management processes," he continued, "pressures will grow" for formal land ownership transfer to the states.
Both he and Reagan have previously endorsed te goals of the so-called rebellion.
The environmentalists' attack on Watt has centered on the 47 lawsuits Mountain States has filed, of which 13 involve the Interior Department. Four were directed at the department and nine were interventions in others' suits, three of which supported the department position.
Brock Evans, head of the Sierra Club, charged the foundation had possible conflicts of interest in that some of the cases it entered financially benefited foundation donors. "Former clients will now be asking Watt to continue to advance their interests," he said.
A coalition of 176 Indian tribes asked Reagan to reconsider Watt's nomination because of one of the suits involving Mountain States. The suit opposed an Apache tribe's effort to impose a tax on minerals taken from its land.
Watt acknowledged that the foundation's position seemed counter to Reagan's support for tribal sovereignty, but added, "It's clear who my new boss will be and I will enthusiastically endorse the positions he had taken."
Later, committee Chairman Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) noted that several Indian groups had sent telegrams supporting Watt's nomination.
Several senators questioned Watt about a recent statement that he would be able to work with environmental groups "who do not damage my hearing." That did not refer, he said, to his confirmation hearing but to groups that "become so shrill that they lose credibility and you can't hear them. If someone is just continuously screaming for their position -- you become immune to that."
He added he had held a private breakfast with 16 representatives of western environmental groups and emerged "friends as we left. We built a bridge that we can walk on."
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) questioned Watt about an alleged remark to the effect that he would not trust a black surgeon to operate on him because the man might have gone to medical school under an affirmative action program.Watt responded that the remark was taken out of context but referred to his belief that discrimination of any sort, whether to provide or deny a job, was a bad idea.
Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.), known for his environmentalist views, predicted that Watt would be confirmed and said "it is not impossible" that he would vote for confirmation.
"If you do we'll write a chapter of 'Profiles in Courage' on you," Watt said. CAPTION: Picture, Watt: "I want to focus my attention [on] managing programs already on the books." By James K. W. Atherton -- The Washington Post