In a move that could draw opposition from both environmentalists and mining companies, Interior Secretary James Watt says federal regulations requiring strip-mined land to be restored to its approximate orginal contour will soon be changed to allow rough terrain to be used for farming or construction.
Watt, is an interview over the weekend, also said there would be no federal parkland acquisitions "until we learn to handle what we have."
The secretary said mining state governors had expressed "unbelievable hostility" to current Office of Surface Mining rules and had convinced him the agency has "gone way overboard, far beyond the intent of Congress" in controlling state actions. Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. "made eminent sense," Watt said, in complaining that coal companies mining useless scrub and mountainous land are required to restore it to its previous useless condition.
Watt said his staff had assured him that "whatever would be required to satisfy Gov. Brown" could be done through regulatory action and would require no changes in the 1977 Surface Mining Act.
Watt could run into opposition on this from mining companies as well as environmental groups. Existing rules were a compromise between environmentalists' desires to improve mined land or change it as little as possible against mining companies' efforts to hold down reclamation expenses. In many cases, it might cost more to prepare the land for farming or construction than to restore the original terrain.
"Common sense ought to be applied," Watt said."I'm people-oriented . . . . If you knock down a hill because there was coal underneath it, then you ought to take the result and use it for people." Useless land can be improved with "a flat area for a hospital or a school or a playground or whatever, a housiing development or the like," Watt said.
Although "strict preservationists" might argue that the rough land should be restored to protect wildlife, "some of us believe you can improve wildlife habitat over nature," Watt said. "Again we're searching for a balance. If I err, I'm going to be erring on the people side."
As to national parkland, Watt said that while he did not foresee new acquisitions, he intended to establish "a disciplined, defined program" to achieve the National Park Service's longtime goal of preserving different kinds of land -- mountaintop, swamp, desert and so on -- although a grasslands park would not be included at this time.
"You don't need to have three or four examples of the same kind of park. We don't need a park in every congressional district," Watt said.
Watt said a consistent thread in his administration would be a dive for "definition" of the department's many roles. "We will be identifying and surveying the value of the [federal] lands to identify and commit them to the best use," he said. "We need to round out the federal recreation estate, give it dimension and definition."
The term "round out," he said, "means that there's an end, a conclusion to a program so it can have definition and purpose. If there is no prospect of ending the acquisition program, there's no definition."
Watt added he has imposed a six-month moratorium on travel and speaking engagements for his top officials and all new employes. "We think it's important that they come in and learn the job and do the job before they go out and make commitments and promises and the like," he said. "We're going to be a professional management team here."
He went out of his way to praise his top staff, a half a dozen of whom he brought on board within 24 hours of his nomination. Some have been attacked for having held positions in opposition to previous Interior programs, but Watt said they make up "a seasoned team, an integrated network of people who have worked with and for each other for many years."