Interior Secretary James G. Watt, trying to head off a drive by Republican congressmen to ban oil and gas leasing in federal wilderness areas, yesterday agreed to provide Congress with advance warning before any leases are granted.
Watt made the announcement following a hastily arranged meeting with Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.), senior Republican on the House Interior Committee, and two other committee Republicans.
His offer satisfied Lujan, who said he would not proceed with a resolution to bar immediately mineral leasing on the nation's 20 million acres of designated wilderness.
But committee Democrats were not mollified by that arrangement. Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), said late yesterday that he intends to introduce a resolution similar to Lujan's. "I see nothing in the secretary's announcement that compels us to change course," he said. "We can't make it easy to rape the wilderness areas."
"This does nothing to solve the problem," echoed Charles Clusen, conservation director of the Wilderness Society. "The fact is that James Watt is implementing a carefully designed program to invade wilderness areas with oil and gas rigs."
The controversy came to the fore last week when it was revealed that the Interior Department had leased the land for oil and gas exploration, the first time since the Congress began preserving wilderness areas in 1964.
The decision to issue three leases in New Mexico's 40,000-acre El Capitan Wilderness was made this fall by regional Bureau of Land Management officials, who did not consult Washington, according to a department spokesman.
Watt agreed yesterday that all future leasing decisions will be cleared by him. He also noted that the three leases were issued with a Forest Service stipulation that the surface of the protected area could not be disturbed until an environmental study assessed the impact of the drilling.
The 1964 Wilderness Act permits oil and gas drilling in protected areas only until Dec. 31, 1983, and thousands of lease applications are pending. Watt is the first federal official in 20 years to indicate he would allow such exploration.
Under the Federal Land Policy Management Act, a single committee of Congress has the power to ban such leases by declaring a "state of emergency" in wilderness areas, which would impose the Dec. 31, 1983, ban at that time. Earlier this year, the Interior Committee used that provision to bar leasing in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness area, a move that is being challenged in court.