To botanists, the small-whorled pogonia (isotria medioloides) is a delicate green-yellow orchid that blooms in boggy places in two national forests. To bureaucrats, this small, rare species is the focus of a steaming debate at the Interior Department, where some careerists say Secretary James G. Watt and his pro-development appointees in the legal office have delayed "endangered species" designations for the pogonia and many other living things improperly. See related story, this page. Such designations have been criticized sharply by those who seek further commercial development of federal lands.

In a blistering memo, John Spinks, who heads Interior's Office of Endangered Species, ripped into his superiors for what he says are nit-picking delays that have forced repeated revisions of the memos proposing isotria medioloides and other species for federal protection. In previous administrations, the memo says, the endangered species experts and the secretary's lawyers worked fine together, but now the lawyers' tactics "raise serious questions of legitimate policy decisions being . . . subordinated by pseudo-legalistic ploys being used as excuses for delay."

Watt's lawyers deny the charge, which has prompted a flurry of meetings and counter-memos. Spinks' co-workers, meanwhile, are simply astounded that a career official would send such a memo. "They could ship him to Guam tomorrow for writing that stuff," said a policy analyst observing the fray.