The Interior Department was deluged with protests late last year after Secretary James G. Watt announced that he was removing more than 800,000 acres of western lands from the Bureau of Land Management's wilderness study program.
But less attention was focused on the second half of Watt's announcement, a review of as much as 5 million acres for possible exclusion from the program.
The program was designed to protect the "wilderness values" of 24 million acres of land while the government decides whether to guard them permanently as part of the federal wilderness system. Watt argued that large tracts were placed in the program improperly.
Now, as environmentalists seek to block the whole procedure through a court challenge, the BLM's western offices are publishing their verdicts on these lands, one by one, in Federal Register notices.
Oregon's BLM last month announced that 152,493 more acres have been opened to potential development (about 11,000 acres were identified in the first announcement). Colorado dropped an additional 9,910 acres from the wilderness study program, but announced that 44,094 acres dropped in the "first cut" will still be considered for wilderness protections because of their unusual scenic characteristics.
In California, the program was hit with uncertainty last week when it was disclosed that Interior's former regional solicitor there had ruled there may be no legal basis for dropping 41,920 acres of wild lands in scenic areas known as the Granite Mountains, Santa Rosa Mountain, Mecca Hills and Orocopia.
The legal ruling, later rescinded by Interior Solicitor William H. Coldiron, said Watt appears to have "ample legal authority" to manage those acres as wilderness areas. The California announcement will not be made for several weeks. ***
THE WILD KINGDOM. . . The past week provided a rare study in how vast a kingdom is governed by the Interior secretary, reaching from the realm of Australia's kangaroo to that of rock music fans and foes.
Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, guardian of endangered species, announced Tuesday that it plans to remove three species of Australian kangaroo from the list of threatened mammmals, allowing unlimited importation of their meat and hides.
As chief of the nation's parks, Watt let it be known that he would not allow rock music on the mall during the Fourth of July festivities, only patriotic music and Las Vegas regular Wayne Newton, so as "to have an impact for wholesomeness." Watt reconsidered that decision after a word or two from the White House.
But even before the rock episode, there was a certain siege mentality building within Interior.
The House Appropriations Committee and the General Accounting Office are expected soon to release what sources characterize as "explosive" reports of investigations into Watt's coal leasing program.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader has called for an investigation of plans to do away with the administrative board that handles surface mining appeals. And reporters from across the country are digging for what are now called "EPA-type" stories, in a reference to the Environmental Protection Agency, articles showing evidence of political and industry influence over environmental policy decisions.
One beleaguered Watt aide summed it up this way: "It's very intense here."