Watt turns history on its head

  On a snowy evening in early February, three High Country News staffers made the five-hour drive over three mountain passes and through a blizzard, to Boulder, Colo., to see this paper’s former nemesis: one-time Interior Secretary James Watt. Professors Patricia Nelson Limerick and Charles Wilkinson, of the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West, hosted Watt in one of a series of discussions with Interior secretaries who have overseen the West’s public land.

Throughout the evening, Watt cast himself as a good guy who had fallen victim to what he called "a personal, brutal attack" from environmentalists and the media. He said that his boss, President Ronald Reagan, had been swept into power by the American people with a mandate for "massive change." A self-proclaimed "sagebrush rebel," Watt described his mission on the public lands as a fight against "selfish interest groups" in Washington. His job, he said, was to "bring people into the equation."

Watt really seemed to believe what he was saying – despite the fact that his version of history is different from what the rest of us remember.

Thank goodness for Wilkinson, who, with the greatest possible tact, pointed out that Watt might have his story mixed up. He suggested, instead, that the environmental laws that Watt chafed against in his campaign to dig and drill every possible acre of the public domain, were the result of a rising tide of public opinion. The people, in other words, wanted to protect the lands, while Watt was fighting for the rights of an entrenched and powerful minority: the timber, oil and mining companies and the large ranchers. "Isn’t it possible," asked Wilkinson, "that the power was on your side?"

Watt complimented Wilkinson on his question, but went on to argue that a few journalists back east had managed to paint him as an evil land-raper, rather than the even-handed administrator that he really was. "News flows east to west in America," he said, "never west to east."

But a look at the October 31, 1983, issue of High Country News (a publication that does, in fact, flow west to east) suggests that it wasn’t only the "chauffeur-driven, high-paid Washington lobbyists" (his words) who took issue with Watt’s policies. In fact, in his rush to lease coal, drill for oil and gas in wilderness areas, and sell off-shore oil tracts, Watt crashed into everyone from environmentalists to industry representatives. In the end, buoyed up by a "Dump Watt" campaign that garnered more than a million signatures from conservation-minded Americans, Congress turned against Watt in September 1983, shooting down his proposal for massive coal sales in five Western states. Watt resigned soon thereafter, after the media had a heyday with his distinctly un-politically correct comment about the members of his coal-advisory panel: "I have a black ... a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

Watt’s protégée, current Interior Secretary Gale Norton, would do well to check the historical record, rather than listen to her former boss at the Mountain States Legal Foundation. Claiming to be a friend of the people, while only looking out for industry, can be disastrous to your career..

To read the Oct. 31, 1983, issue of High Country News on the Web, go to www.hcn.org and click on the "What Watt Wrought" icon.