A DRAFT BILL of Interior Secretary Watt's plan to "preserve" the wilderness--a plan announced last Sunday on "Meet the Press"--is circulating among Republican members of Congress. As drafted, it turns out to be anything but an attempt at preservation.

Last May, in a memo to his assistant secretaries, Mr. Watt listed "open the wilderness" as one of his "major goals." Numerous subsequent statements emphasized that he viewed his policy on oil and gas leasing in the wilderness as a major change from that of previous administrations. He argued, incorrectly, that the Wilderness Act of 1964 "compels" him to issue mineral leases in the wilderness. In fact, the law permits him to do so--an opportunity previous interior secretaries of both parties have, with some exceptions, forgone--until a statutory deadline set at the end of 1983.

In the last half of 1981, the Forest Service recommended approval of oil and gas lease applications in wilderness areas from California to Arkansas. In order to prevent final approval of leases, Congress declared a state of emergency in one wilderness area and considered extending it to the entire system. Near the end of the year, Congress and the secretary negotiated a temporary truce--a moratorium on further lease approvals in wilderness areas until June 1, 1982. The House Interior Committee began consideration of a bill that would prohibit mineral leasing during the 18 months from the end of the moratorium until the 1983 leasing deadline. This was the situation as of last Sunday.

The draft proposal would prohibit wilderness leasing until the year 2000, but then release the entire system to development, thereby exchanging the unending wilderness protection provided in the current law after 1983 for an 18-year wilderness system. It would also allow the president, until 2000, to release wilderness lands for development if he saw an undefined "urgent national need" to do so--unless both houses of Congress vetoed each proposed release.

The plan would have an equally severe impact on lands recommended for wilderness protection but not yet acted on by Congress, and on lands recommended for further wilderness study. Current law and administrative guidelines require that the wilderness character of these lands be preserved until Congress decides otherwise. The draft proposal creates deadlines after which these lands can no longer be added to the wilderness system and, even before the new deadlines, transfers to the president the authority unilaterally to declare some of these lands unsuitable for wilderness protection and open to development.

In short, this draft of Mr. Watt's proposal amounts to a substantial assault on a system intended to provide a small, unspoiled resource for future generations. It should be withdrawn.