Senior Interior Department officials have quashed a regional solicitor's opinion challenging one of Secretary James G. Watt's most controversial wilderness policies and have ordered agency employes to "destroy or return" all copies of the opinion.
The Feb. 3 opinion said Interior may have had no legal basis for relaxing federal protections on thousands of acres of western lands without first examining their deeds. The Dec. 30, 1982, move opened the possibility that the roadless lands would be opened to development, officials said.
Jean Kingrey, who wrote the legal memorandum on Feb. 3 as Interior's northwest regional solicitor in Sacramento, was reassigned soon afterward to Washington as special assistant to Interior solicitor William H. Coldiron, an agency spokesman said.
In a March 3 memo signed by Kingery's replacement, Interior employes were instructed to "destroy or return all copies of the memo in order that no confusion will result as to the official opinion" on the wilderness issue. Kingery's opinion and the March 3 memo circulated widely, and have been obtained by The Washington Post.
Calls to Kingery were referred yesterday to the Interior public affairs office. Spokesman Harmon Kallman said her transfer had nothing to do with the memo. He said Coldiron rescinded her opinion and is reviewing the issue.
"It doesn't happen every day, but it's not extraordinary to rescind and destroy opinions," Kallman added.
However, past and present Interior officials yesterday charged that the treatment of Kingery's opinion represented an "extraordinary" effort to stifle dissent. They said the memo could strengthen a lawsuit by environmental groups seeking to block the new policy as illegal.
"In a lengthy career as an Interior Department official, I never heard of an effort to destroy copies of a legal opinion that didn't fit with the secretary's view of the world," said Terry Sopher, a wilderness specialist with the Wilderness Society, one of the environmental groups involved in the suit.
Sopher directed Interior's wilderness program under the Carter administration and worked there under the Nixon and Ford administrations.
"It may not have been normal in the past to destroy opinions overruled by senior department officials , but it's normal now," said an Interior official.
Watt's wilderness policies have been the focus of much of the controversy surrounding his tenure at Interior. Wilderness areas are those untouched lands, mostly in the West, where the government has banned all development and motorized travel in recognition of their "outstanding" values.
On Dec. 30, Watt announced that legal technicalities forced him to eliminate 805,000 acres of wild lands, and possibly millions more, from consideration for inclusion in the wilderness system except in certain cases.
One technicality, Watt said, was that the federal government lacked authority to protect lands if the government owned only the surface, with private companies owning the minerals underneath. Watt said this forced him to eliminate an estimated 465,000 acres from the program.
However, Kingery's memo said Watt "appears to have ample legal authority" to manage an estimated 41,920 acres of these lands in California. The Southern Pacific Land Co., owner of those parcels, ceded control over the surface of the land to the federal government in property deeds, the memo says.
As a result, the memo said, "the secretary has full regulatory and discretionary authority to manage the surface . . . for preservation as wilderness." Interior officials said yesterday they did not know how many more areas were in this category.