Not to drop names or anything, but one day last week I lunched with James Watt and found him an eminently rational fellow. Then I came back to the office and found a great red-bound notebook awaiting me from the Wilderness Society. The society thinks he's a bum.
Watt, as the whole world must know by now, is the secretary of the interior.
We have come to know some controversial Cabinet members in recent years -- Kissinger at State, Cohen in ywelfared, Butz in Argiculture, McNamara in Defense -- but I cannot recall a Cabinet member since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who has stirred up the antagonism that Watt so manifestly has aroused.
It is truly remarkable. At the very mention of his hame, the environmentalists succumb to the gurgles and sighs. A massive petition is circulating, calling upon President Reagan to give Watt what President Carter gave Joe Califano, namely, the old heave-ho. Heaven alone knows what time and money went into his notebook from the Wilderness folks. Their compendium is verily a labor of loathing.
The secretary and his critics have formed a mutual denigration society based upon different perceptions and different policies. Watt perceives his foes as a bunch of impractical birdwatchers, indifferent to the interests of ordinary people, whose purpose is to preserve federallands for the sole benefit of a backpacking elite. The environmentalists perceive the secretary as a monster whose purpose is to ravish the wilderness, pollute the rivers and leave no redwood standing.
These are mistaken perceptions on both sides, but the policy differences are real. Watt, for example, wants to put a halt to the acquisition of new national parks. He thinks the available funds would be spent more prudently on repairs and restoration of the park facilities we have now. His opponents, by contrast, want to continue land acquisitions. They contend that delay will result in both the loss of desirable park sites today and a much heavier expense later on. Both positions are plausible.
For a second example, Watt wants to open certain public lands for the discovery of critical minerals and the production of coal and oil. He observes that the United States now is compelled to import 22 of 36 minerals that are vital for both industry and defense. We remain heavily dependent upon the Middle East for oil. He argues that limited exploration will not destroy the beautiful West. The secretary's domain includes two billion acres of ocean bottom in the Outer Continental Shelf, of which only a minute fraction would be leased to the oil companies.
His opponents respond that some of the strategic minerals already are stockpiled to excess, that more acres of federal land already are available to oil companies than the companies can use, and that the risk of oil spills from drilling platforms presents a serious peril to California and the Gulf states. Neither position is irrational.
The problem, at bottom, is both political and personal. Watt is carrying out precisely the policies outlined for him by his boss, the president of the United States. The petition for Watt's removal is an exercise in futility if there ever was one. The secretary's position is fortified not only by the president's assurance but also by his own strong sense of self-assurance. Mr. Watt is an old hand at Interior. He knows where all the bureaucratic bones are buried. In recent years, the environmentalists have enjoyed a series of sympathetic secretaries who could be handled like teddy bears. Watt is as cuddly as a porcupine.
Reading over "The Watt Book," I see that the Wilderness Society professes its own dedication to "balanced uses" of federal lands. Watt professes the same goal with equal fervor. But one man's balance is another man's bias. At a time of severe constraints on federal spending, when energy supplies remain uncertain, my own feeling is that Jim Watt's idea of balance is closer to the national interest. If that opinion puts me in the camp of the agres, so be it.