Leading House Republicans and Democrats introduced a bill yesterday that would ban oil and gas leasing in wilderness regions permanently.
They rejected a controversial wilderness bill proposed earlier this year by Interior Secretary James G. Watt.
"Everyone, even the hardliners, oppose drilling in the wilderness," said Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.), ranking Republican on the House Interior Committee and a cosponsor of the bill. "This is just recognizing the fact that nobody wants it and putting it into writing."
The new bill, which incorporates some elements of Watt's proposal, drew qualified support from conservation groups, who hailed it as a show of bipartisan support for environmental protection. Spokesmen for Watt and for oil industry groups declined comment.
Beside banning oil and gas leases on the 24 million acres of wilderness lands, the bipartisan measure would allow Congress to place millions more acres under wilderness protection.
Watt's bill had included both these provisions, but with several restrictions that critics attacked as an attempt to "gut the wilderness system" despite the secretary's repeated statements that he believed wilderness regions should be "the last to be explored or developed."
Watt's proposed ban on wilderness leasing would have expired in the year 2000.
It also would have empowered the president to open certain wilderness areas for mineral development without congressional approval in cases of "urgent national need."
In addition, Watt had proposed imposing deadlines after which Congress could no longer expand the wilderness system, a restriction that was denounced by environmentalists and the Democratic majority on the House Interior Committee.
Lujan, who sponsored the Watt bill earlier this year at the administration's request, said he became convinced it would die in committee and began seeking ways to compromise with Democrats.
Democrats, led by Rep. John F. Seiberling (Ohio), chairman of the Interior panel's subcommittee on public lands, also gave some ground in an effort to resolve the issue.
They agreed to allow the president to remove certain lands from the system, but only with the consent of Congress.
And they dropped efforts to extend the development ban to hard rock minerals as well as oil and gas, a concession to Republicans and conservative Democrats concerned about strategic minerals believed to underlie some wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountains.
Seiberling predicted the measure easily would pass the House because of its bipartisan sponsorship, which includes five Republicans and five Democrats on the committee.
Its chances in the Senate are less certain because of stronger support there for accelerated western energy development.
The wilderness controversy began last year when Watt announced plans to consider the requests of oil and gas companies to develop certain popular wilderness areas in Montana and Wyoming.
Watt's announcement triggered a storm of grassroots protest, and he later agreed to a moratorium on all wilderness leasing until the end of this year. However, Watt said he would resume consideration of the lease requests by the end of 1983 unless Congress ordered him to stop.