"The American people will simply not permit a return to the environmental dark ages, when air and water were fouled at will by those who profited from using our life support systems as their sewer . . ." Russell Peterson

Russell Peterson is not your average mud-slinging, knee-jerk radical environmentalist, although his words, directed at President Reagan and his chief environmental officer, Interior Secretary James Watt, might sound that way.

Peterson worked for Du Pont chemical for 26 years; he is the former Republican governor of Delaware; he was chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under former presidents Nixon and Ford.

Today he is head of the National Audubon Society and he's hopping mad, along with environmentalists across the American spectrum, over what they see as an administration sellout of the nation's parks and wild places.

"We will not allow them to continue their greedy game much longer," Peterson told the Audubon national convention last month. "The plume-hunter mentality is abroad in the land, but it will not prevail. The plume hunters in high office have asked for a fight and, by golly, they will get one."

Perhaps never before in U.S. history have disparate environmental forces banded together as they have to battle the Watt/Reagan view of the wilderness.

The Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth are circulating petitions demanding the secretary's removal from office. Sierra Club alone has collected more than 750,000 signatures and expects to reach a million soon.

Last month the national convention of the Izaak Walton League of America, representing some 50,000 fishermen, voted unanimously to ask the president to replace Watt.

The board of directors of the 50,000-member Wilderness Society, headed by former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, has formally called for Watt's removal from office.

On Aug. 15, Trout Unlimited voted to inform Reagan that his "policies, decisions and budget recommendations for the Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service, Council on Environmental Quality and Department of Interior are detrimental to the goals and mission of Trout Unlimited."

"Rather than simply asking him to dump Watt, we passed a resolution which characterizes the entire administration policy on conservation and environment as being detrimental," said TU director Robert Herbst, Watt's immediate predecessor in the nation's top environmental job.

A recent poll of the 4.5 million-member National Wildlife Federation, a conservative group composed mostly of hunters and fishermen, showed members opposed to Watt's policies by a 13-1 margin, though these same members had voted 2-1 for Reagan last November.

Opponents also include Defenders of Wildlife and the National Parks and Conservation Association. "I can't remember a time in my 27 years when every major conservation organization in the country was running some sort of campaign to get the secretary of Interior fired," said Chuck Roberts, director of information for the National Wildlife Federation.

Indeed, while some environmental organizations have not formally repudiated the secretary, a two-day search turned up not one good word about Watt from any of the traditional lobbyists for the preservation of American parks, natural resources and wild places.

Why do they hate him?

Three reasons, said Bill Turnage, the Wilderness Society's executive director. "First, because there is a far deeper consensus among Americans on the importance of conserving air, water, the natural beauty of the country and wildlife than the Reagan administration ever realized.

"Second, because Watt has got to be one of the most arrogant, self-righteous public officials in our history. It's just galling to have this patronizing official pronouncing edicts as if he were the archangel Gabriel.

"And third, because there's deep substance to the harm he's started to do."

What harm?

The Izaak Walton League, in its petition for Watt's removal, produced a laundry list of actions it considers contrary to good resource management.

"He abolished the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service," said IWLA Executive Director Jack Lorenz. "He advocated crippling reductions in funds for federal land acquisition.

"He wants to give National Park concessionaires a greater role in park management; he's weakened federal surface-mining controls; he's accelerated offshore drill leasing and sought to end the ban on drilling in California's marine sanctuaries over the protests of the state.

"He's said the administration will use the budget system as the excuse to make major policy decisions; he's called for relaxation of the environmental impact process; he's invited governors to nominate federal lands for transfer to the states and he's put a moratorium on purchase of congressionally authorized national land, even where funds have been appropriated."

Lorenz characterizes his organization as extremely conservative and said it was with deep regret that the membership gave its vote of no-confidence to Watt.

"We've never done anything like this before," Lorenz said. "But our members simply can't see this man as a responsible steward of the environment. People say, 'He hasn't done anything yet.' But I don't have to see the body in the water if I can smell it."

Perhaps as galling to the environmentalists as the administration policies is Watt's own attitude. It infuriates environmentalists when he comments, "My concept of stewardship is to invest in it -- build a road, build a latrine, pump in running water so you can wash dishes. Most people think if you can drive in, walk 20 yards and pitch a tent by a stream you've had a wilderness experience. Do we have to buy enough land so that you can go backpacking and never see anyone else?"

Watt's director of public affairs, Doug Baldwin, said last night that much of the opposition is coming from a "a professional political constituency with a vested interest in what we are doing."

He said many of Watt's opponents "make a living by beating the drum for environmental causes, both sound and extreme."

Baldwin said Watt and Reagan have made policy decisions largely out of a conviction that there had been a "dramatic change in the management of resource programs over the last four years . . . that shifted the emphasis away from development and toward preservatist positions not always warranted."

He said Watt's efforts to "return a balance" kicked off a "firestorm of protest among the professional preservationists in Washington. And we knew it would."

He said Watt is acting to open up some public lands for development largely out of a fear that if development were not permitted now, and resources in those lands were left untapped, far deeper environmental harm could develop when a real resource crunch arrived.

He said the crisis in public relations should ease. Baldwin said Watt made a decision early on to "hunker down" for his first few months in office to get a management handle on the department. "We paid a terrible (public relations) price for that," said Baldwin. Now he said Watt intends to travel more, meet the local press in areas affected by this decisions and explain the adminstration's aims.

Environmentalists say that when Watt took office, he made an initial effort to woo hunters and fishermen and turn his back on backpackers, hikers, bird-watchers and other "elitists."

"He made a very strong play for what he regards as 'the hook-and-bullet boys,' " said the Wilderness Society's Turnage. "Then when he got shot down by the National Wildlife Federation, I think it was a shock."

Since then, in the eyes of many traditional lobbyists for the environment, the situation has degenerated to the point where there is practically no communication, and both sides are sniping from their bunkers.

"There is no question but that the threat is bringing together environmental groups as they've never been brought together before," said Dick Beamish, the Audubon Society's communications director. "It reminds me of Britain during World War II. The class barriers were forgotten, thrown aside in the common defense of the island. It's the same here. The class and attitude differences are being set aside in the face of the common threat.

"The problem is, it isn't just Watt. When and if he is driven out of office, which is probably fairly likely, the problems won't be solved.

"He could be replaced by someone equally bad but far more subtle and devious and therefore more effective. It's dangerous to view Watt as the villain. The administration is loaded with terrible appointments -- people who have previously fought against environmental advances.

"Getting Watt out will be a great symbolic victory. But the battle won't be won then."