Whenever the national media turns its attention to the Interior Department, I can't help but think of James Watt. Since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig and the ensuing gush of undersea oil, the agency has certainly been in the spotlight.
As the Interior Secretary under the Reagan administration, Watt's brash quips, unabashed partisan politics, disdain for environmental protection and penchant for controversy made him anything but a media darling.
In the Sept. 19, 1983 issue of High Country News, Peter Wild wrote in an article titled "Albert Fall pirated the Navy's oil" that throughout history Interior Department secretaries have consistently been colorful, if not always admirable.
Wild's story described Carl Schurz, an Interior Secretary during the late19th century, who, as a young German revolutionary, was said to have eluded the Prussian soldiers by "scurrying through sewers with a pistol clutched in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other." (Cover image at left, or click here to download the two-page article as a pdf.) After his appointment in Interior, Schurz confounded timber thieves with his unerring sense of justice. Wild also told of Albert Fall, who was Interior Secretary in the early 1920's under President Harding. In what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal, Fall took $400,000 in payments in return for favors, most notably transferring leases in two naval oil reserves - Wyoming's Teapot Dome and California's Elk Hills –to oil company friends.
James Watt was no exception. In the spring of 1983Watt caused an uproar when he announced that rock bands would be banned from playing Fourth of July concerts on the National Mall in favor of more "wholesome" entertainment. The Beach Boys had previously played, but Watt signed on crooner Wayne Newton instead.
"In general, Secretaries of the Interior have added zest to Washington, whether they are struggling with corporate Titans over coal leases in Alaska or churning up a little tempest in a teapot over the Beach Boys," wrote Wild.
Shortly after Wild's article appeared, Watt publicly quipped, "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple," while extolling the qualities of a federal coal-leasing panel he had appointed. The comment ultimately cost him his job.
But Watt's off-the-cuff gaffes were minor compared to his ruthless efforts to give industry and pro-development factions unbridled access to the nation's public lands. On the heels of his resignation, High Country News dedicated an entire issue, titled "What Watt wrought" to analyzing his 33-month tenure and what it meant for the West and its future, a future that's playing out today. Articles from around the region told of his undoing of the agency. (Cover image at left, or click here to download the seven-page article package as a pdf.)
Upon assuming the post in 1981, Watt initiated a department-wide housecleaning that swept out appointees from the previous administration. He axed state BLM directors who threatened his pro-industry agenda, eliminated jobs within the department and transferred officials he couldn't get rid of to other posts.
Watt worked zealously to change the rules governing his department and in many areas he succeeded. Coal, oil and gas leasing increased at his discretion and companies paid rock-bottom prices. He watered down mining regulations and dramatically reduced spending on environmental analysis. Many BLM Wilderness Study Areas were placed in non-wilderness status. He packed public land advisory councils with pro-development members and ultimately succeeded in politicizing conservation.
Early in his tenure, Watt created the Minerals Management Service (MMS) after Congress ordered the secretary to get a handle on regulations and payments from federal mineral leases, following a six-month investigation that found the government had lost hundreds of millions in oil and gas royalty payments. The investigation discovered that industry had been allowed to decide how much royalty to pay, government verification was nonexistent and only a handful of audits had occurred.
While the MMS was meant to clean up years of mismanagement of the nation's mineral regulations and royalties, in recent years the office has been plagued by a sex, drug and illegal gift scandal.
Given the history of mismanagement and the pro-industry climate under which the MMS was created – a climate that's prevailed in administrations since - the astonishingly unethical and tawdry behavior at MMS becomes just slightly less surprising.
Ken Salazar, the tough-talking, cowboy hat- and boot-wearing current Interior Secretary, has ordered MMS to split its conflicting regulatory and royalty collecting duties into three separate division. But it likely won't be enough to reform the ethical wasteland that's become the MMS. Maybe it's time for Salazar to pull a James Watt, and clean house within the Interior Department.