The Interior Department's plans to drop 805,000 acres of wild lands from consideration for permanent wilderness protection, announced days after Congress adjourned, appears to have set the stage for another confrontation between some House members and Secretary James G. Watt.
Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Interior subcommittee on public lands, said yesterday that he will consider invoking emergency powers when the 98th Congress convenes Jan. 3 to block changes in the areas' status. Interior officials said the lands do not qualify legally for their wilderness review, but may still be protected under several other programs.
"It is difficult to view the timing as other than a deliberate attempt to evade the law and avoid legitimate concerns of Congress about this administration's negative policies on wilderness protection," an angry Seiberling said from his Akron district office.
Rep. Samuel Gejdenson (D-Conn.), another Interior Committee member, fired off a letter to Watt accusing his agency of pulling "publicity stunts . . . when Congress has its back turned," and urging him to "substitute overt mediation for covert confrontation" on the wilderness issue.
Interior officials said there was no mischief behind the timing of the announcement, which has been under consideration for several months. "The business of government goes on even when Congress is not in session," a spokesman said. "We've got separate and equal branches here."