Thank you, James Watt, for all you did for Greater Yellowstone

An eccentric secretary of Interior remembered for his unlikely conservation legacy.


Of all the names synonymous with American conservation — Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt, among others — one towers far above the rest in the Greater Yellowstone region as the signature force behind a generation of astonishing accomplishments. And that is, odd as it seems, James Watt.

Yes, baby boomers, that James Watt.

Many longtime Westerners will easily recall that he was Interior Secretary from 1981-‘83. They remember Watt quintupling leases for coal mining and boasting about opening more than a billion acres of coastal waters for oil and gas development. Watt believed that the only good tree was a dead tree stacked in a sawmill lumberyard. He also sought to de-authorize many national parks.

And he said, half-jokingly, “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

All of which explains why, as a conservationist, I owe a lot to Mr. Watt — my employment with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which turns 30 this year, included.

Hearken back to 1980. Greater Yellowstone’s conservation community had precious few full-time staffers patrolling the 20-million-acre region, consisting of the national park and adjacent state, federal and private land. The term “ecosystem” had yet to come from the lips of anyone in any official capacity. Enter James Watt.

Citing divine inspiration and obligation, the Reagan appointee with the big eyeglasses from Lusk, Wyo., earned instant infamy for promising, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more.” Lusting after even the lands and waters of his home state, Watt revealed plans to drill on 350,000 acres in the rugged Washakie Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

Alarm bells rang from sea to still-shining sea.

“It was a scary time,” remembers Rick Reese of Bozeman, Mont., a Greater Yellowstone Coalition co-founder. “(Watt) was only secretary for a couple of years, but he came out with both barrels blazing. And he was just getting started.”

As radical an idea as it was to open wilderness to industry, even more ominous was the realization that such activities would put Yellowstone itself at grave risk. The park’s health, we were only beginning to fully understand, was inextricably linked to the health of the lands around it.

That the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was formed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the final year of Watt’s brief, controversial reign was no coincidence.  At the time, the future of the grizzly bear — a symbol of America’s rapidly vanishing wildness — looked grim and was of immediate concern. But it was quickly evident to our founders that preserving the park required protecting a larger landscape, and the coalition has been America’s “Voice for a Greater Yellowstone” ever since. Today, it has a supporting cast of 40,000 “voices” worldwide and an annual operating budget of $2.7 million.

Meanwhile, consider the conservation achievements here since Watt exited the scene in 1983. Grizzly bears have more than tripled in numbers and today roam places they’ve been absent from for generations. With wolves restored in 1995, Greater Yellowstone became one of the last significant largely intact ecosystems on the planet.

“Ecosystem” is now part of our everyday lexicon, and at least 200 conservation-oriented nonprofit groups have fingers in the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone pie. As the coalition celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall in West Yellowstone, the region arguably is healthier ecologically and economically than at any time since the park’s creation in 1872.

These accomplishments bode well for a future where new challenges await: Rising human population, a warming climate and extreme forest fires. A comprehensive study by Bozeman’s Headwaters Economics suggests that prosperity in the West will increasingly hinge on a town’s proximity to public lands with strong protections.

Many visionaries merit a robust “thank you” for the incomparable quality of life we cherish today in Greater Yellowstone, and so we honor Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt.

But there is something to be said for the man whose vision of an industrial juggernaut throughout the West galvanized millions and created an entire generation of conservationists.

“If you talk to anybody who was in American conservation at the time, they would tell you Watt did us a huge favor,” Reese says.

Indeed, with enemies like that, it was easy to make new friends.

Jeff Welsch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman-based conservation advocacy group that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Aug 02, 2013 05:54 PM
NO NO NO NO! An individual should never be "thanked" for being an enemy that somehow stirred the troops. I have no problem with writing the article, in fact I agree with the premise, but thanks are not in order.
Jim Vance
Jim Vance
Aug 06, 2013 07:37 PM
Perhaps some degree of personal thanks on the author's part is not inappropriate since Watt's actions galvanized counteracting forces that created the NGO which has employed him for so long, but so far as I'm concerned James Watt deserves only scornful derision for his neofascist promotion of misplaced free-market promotions that in essence were little more little more than rehashed 19th Century rape-and-scrape looting of the national lands.
William   Bill Renwick II
William Bill Renwick II
Aug 06, 2013 08:28 PM
Mr. Watt's reach went far beyond the Greater Yellowstone area. He greatly affected the high desert of Southeast Oregon, and his counterparts in the President, and Sec. of Ag. policies of raping the forests, have killed our communities - the necessary vertical infrastructure of our forests was eliminated. Consequently, no trees left to support the rest of the work that needed to be done - thinning, fuels reduction, etc.,to be supported by a commercial forest industry. Now all the industrial infrastructure, and knowledge based infrastructure are disappearing quickly.
It wasn't just the GY group that became, and grew as a response to Mr. Watt's rdiculousness. Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Western Watesheds, ONDA, etc., all were huge beneficiaries of his, and cohorts, irresponsible behavior. Other, similarly rapacious presidents, and their administrations, have not improved on the disaster of the Reagan administration. they have exacerbated the problem. Even now, with a dysfunctional Congress, budges are being hacked, and efforts to restore forest, and rangeland health, are being reduced, if not eliminated, with only fire response getting some respect. the fires would be far less uncharacteristic if the ecosystems were returned to some normalcy of function, resilience, etc, through restoration - thereby lessening the necessity of billions of taxpayer dollars being WASTED on an ever-increasing symptom, without treatment of the cause.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 07, 2013 05:27 AM
I see things differently. I see the Watt years as the beginning of the big do nothing period of conservation. I'd trade a couple James Watts for one Kyoto Protocol. I'd even toss in a couple Western Watersheders or a Biological Diversifier just to sweeten the deal.

I don't think multi million annual budgets and large charismatic but biologically unendangered carnivores for tourists (visiting and resident) are accomplishments. Dear Jack, look out the window. See Mt. Moran? The iconic Skillet Glacier is shrinking as fast as the polar ice cap.

Thirty three years ago we were on a path to energy self sufficiency and a reduction in the use of use of carbon based fuels. We really didn't need a three decade vacation from conservation. I don't measure success in dollars or members, I measure it in legislation passed. I would really like to have seen a Climate Change Act..... of 1999.

Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Aug 07, 2013 02:44 PM
Reagan was a disaster and he appointed that idiot Watts. If not for activist, every tree in America would have already been cut down and this country would be a giant paved strip mall from coast to coast. Good riddance to Reagan and Watts.
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare Subscriber
Aug 09, 2013 12:32 PM
I was a 29 year old ski instructor when that mean-spirited disaster, James Watt, came on the scene. Like many folks, I didn't even know what the Department of the Interior was before Watt, but we sure did afterwards. And this spring I retired from a career as a ranger in a couple different DOI bureaus. Not sure that 'Thanks' is precisely the word to apply to Watt, but maybe a dramatically increased public awareness of public lands was the silver lining in an otherwise very dark, ugly, and disastrous storm cloud. And then there was Gale Norton, Watt's protoge...