INTERIOR SECRETARY James Watt has become--through his own efforts--so controversial that it is hard to separate the facts of what he does from his well-advertised intentions. The current fuss over his plan to reopen one of his predecessor's major decisions is an example.
In the waning days of the Carter administration, Secretary Cecil Andrus ruled that parts of a coal field just outside Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park were unsuited to mining because of the damage mining would do the scenic value of the park. Estimating that his decision would prohibit the mining of only about 10 percent of the coal in the area, Secretary Andrus said, "We have drawn a line which I feel confident everyone can live with."
He couldn't have been more wrong. Within months of his decision, four lawsuits were filed. Environmentalists argued he hadn't gone far enough. The mining company, Utah International Inc., claimed he had gone too far. The state of Utah alleged insufficient consideration of its rights. All the cases are before the court. Now Secretary Watt has decided not to defend the department's position in any of them; he has asked the judge to let him review the issue.
Considering the amount of unhappiness caused by Mr. Andrus' decision this seems on its face a reasonable request, although some critics argue that it is an attempt to sidestep the judicial process on the flimsiest of grounds. The judge will resolve this question, but there is another element of this case worthy of note.
Mr. Andrus made his ruling under a provision of the 1977 strip mining law that allows citizens to ask the secretary to designate an area unsuited for mining where there are particular environmental constraints. In creating this mechanism Congress tried to meet industry's complaint that the worst of all its problems is the seemingly endless delay and uncertainty caused by environmentalists' opposition. The law requires the secretary to decide a petition on the merits within one year.
Now Mr. Watt, whom you would expect to applaud this attempt to reduce bureaucratic delay, wants to start the whole process over. One can sympathize with his desire to take his own look at the facts, but if future secretaries were to adopt the same procedure, no decision would ever come to rest.
As to whether Mr. Watt's move is, as House Interior Committee Chairman Morris Udall wondered, another attempt to "roll over and play dead" in the face of his responsibilities as the country's chief conservationist, we will just have to wait and see. It seems unlikely that he will be able to improve on Secretary Andrus' fair compromise, but Mr. Watt should be allowed to speak for himself.