As President Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, who pivoted environmental policy heavily toward commercial exploitation and sparked a national debate over whether to develop or conserve America’s public lands and resources, said in May He died in Arizona on the 27th. he was 85 years old.
Her son, Eric Watt, confirmed the death in a text message on Thursday, but did not give a cause of death.
After taking office in 1981, Mr. Watt was asked at a hearing by the House Committee on Home Affairs whether he favored preserving natural areas for future generations. He was elected by President Reagan from the Denver Law Foundation, which often challenged the rules and policies of the department he now serves as president. Critics called him the fox in the chicken coop.
He replied, “I don’t know how many future generations we can expect before the Lord returns.”
Watt’s response surprised some commissioners, but seemed to explain his intention to ease restrictions on the use of millions of acres of public land.
The remark was revealing. A born-again Christian and lifelong Republican, Watt considered himself a servant of God and prayed with his colleagues. But it raised the question of whether he was motivated by conservative political judgments, religious beliefs, or both.
It also hinted at an aspect of Mr. Watt that wasn’t initially obvious: a verbal tendency to shoot himself in the foot. In an unguarded moment during his 33-month tenure, he suggested that liberals were un-American and that the popular rock band The Beach Boys were unhealthy. He compared his critics to Nazis and Bolsheviks, and insulted blacks, women, Jews, and the disabled.
In one of his first public statements, Mr. Watt said years of Home Office policy had been too focused on conservation under the influence of “environmental extremists” and had shunned the development of public resources he said were needed for economic growth. Declared. and national security.
He soon transferred control of many resources to private industry, believing that he had restored a proper balance to the nation’s heritage. He opened most of the outer continental shelf, nearly all of America’s coastal waters, to oil and gas companies for drilling leases. He expanded access to coal on federal lands and eased restrictions on strip mining, which scarred the landscape and was cheaper than drilling deep mine shafts.
He has increased the industry’s access to natural areas for drilling, mineral extraction and lumbering. He gave private owners of hotels, restaurants and shops greater rights within the park. He scaled back programs to protect endangered species. Reduce funding to acquire land for national and state parks. And added funds to build roads, bridges, hotels, and other man-made structures within the park.
Not all his efforts were successful. Some have been blocked in whole or in part by congressional moves, court decisions and public reactions. Mr. Watt admitted that a plan to sell federal land to reduce the national debt had failed due to widespread opposition.
Environmental groups such as the Nature Conservation Society have called for his dismissal. The coalition has grown to include the National Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, National Wildlife Federation, and the Isaac Walton League. A Sierra Club petition for his recall has gathered one million signatures.
Watt had support from conservatives, Western Republicans and the private sector. Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who ranks Republicans on the House Public Lands Subcommittee, called him “the best Interior Secretary I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Watt attacked the critics violently. “I never use the words Democrat and Republican,” he said in his favorite line. “It’s liberal and American.”
However, his assertiveness caused problems. Some were comics. He banned pantsuits for women in his department, but the decree was flagrantly violated. Foretelling conflict, he flipped the bison in his department logo from left to right. “If jury seats and ballot boxes can’t solve the problem of environmentalists, maybe we should use cartridge boxes,” he said lightly.
He accused critics of using a semblance of environmental problems to achieve “centralized planning and control of society.” He told Business Week magazine: “Look what happened to Germany in the 1930s. Human dignity was subordinated to the power of Nazism. Human dignity was despised in Russia. It’s power.”
The blowback was quick. “The secretary has gone crazy,” said Gaylord Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin and president of the Conservation Society. “It’s time for the white-coated people to take him away,” said Sierra Club president Michael McCloskey. “Only James Watt failed to see the difference between Hermann Göring and John Muir.” Said he was a naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club.
When plans began for the 1983 Independence Day celebrations on the National Mall, Watt said the pop music groups that have been maintained in recent years had the “wrong element”, perhaps young people who drink and do drugs. said to attract The Mall’s most famous band has been the Beach Boys since the 1960s.
Watt, a Pentecostal fundamentalist who doesn’t drink or smoke, suggests instead a military band with Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton whose signature tune is “Danke Schoen,” who are more patriotic and representative of their families. said better. A directional theme he preferred.
Protesters and disc jockeys accused Watt of being a nerd. With his bald putty, gray halo, and frown behind his glasses, he has long been a favorite of editorial cartoonists. He was summoned to the Oval Office. Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were fans of the Beach Boys, the president said, and gave Watt a souvenir trophy — a plaster leg with bullet holes in it.
Watt told graduates of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College (now known as Liberty University) that America was “God’s chosen place” and that “we have given up our political role to the religious left.” ‘, an editorial in The The newspaper said. The New York Times declared: Watt shoots in the other leg. ”
He made his final gaffe in a speech with an economic organization. Shaken by a Senate vote barring further leasing of federal land for coal mining, he said the committee reviewing his coal leasing policy “contains all sorts of mixtures. “I have a black man,” he said. I have 1 woman, 2 Jews, and 1 disabled person. ”
Protests and demands for his resignation erupted, along with expressions of displeasure from members of Congress and the White House. Watt publicly apologized. But the regime was seen as an environmental enemy, and Watt became politically accountable. He resigned on October 9, 1983. President Reagan said he “reluctantly accepted” his resignation. Watt was replaced by William P. Clarke.
James Gaius Watt was born on January 31, 1938, in Rusk, in the highlands of eastern Wyoming, to William and Lois May (Williams) Watt. His father was a lawyer and homesteader. James shared the ranch chores, repairing fences and watering the cows. He attended high school in Wheatland, Wyoming, and graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1960 and law school there in 1962.
In 1957 he married his high school sweetheart, Leilani Bombardner. They had two children, Erin and Eric. They all survived him.
In Washington, Mr. Watt was the legislative assistant to Republican Senator Millward L. Simpson of Wyoming. He became a born-again Christian in 1964 after attending an evangelical meeting. In 1966, he was hired as a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promoting business interests and opposing regulations on energy, water, and environmental pollution.
When former Alaska Governor Walter J. Hickel became President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of the interior, Mr. Watt was named lieutenant to oversee water and power resources. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford appointed him to the Federal Electricity Commission. He became a supporter of the “Sagebrush Rebellion”, a Western movement for local control of public resources.
In 1977, Mr. Watt became President and Chief Counsel of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded by Colorado brewer Joseph Coors Sr. to protect property rights. He filed a number of lawsuits to challenge the Home Office’s environmental policy.
He and President Reagan knew the nomination for Secretary of the Interior would draw opposition because of his anti-environmental and pro-development activism. But he was easily approved by the Republican-dominated Senate, arguing that controlled resource development would strengthen the nation in an energy emergency.
After leaving government, Watt worked as a lobbyist for builders seeking contracts with the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1984 to 1986. In 1995, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 25 counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in a fraud and obstruction of justice investigation. But the prosecution’s situation soured, the felony was dropped, and he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to 500 hours of community service.
Watt, who had a home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and recently lived in Wickenburg, Arizona, wrote Conservative Courage (1985, co-authored with Doug Weed) on conservative political issues. co-authored.
In 2001, when the George W. Bush administration proposed drilling for oil on public lands to address the nation’s energy problems, Mr. Watt applauded the approach being taken by Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Everything Cheney is saying, everything the president is saying is exactly what we were saying 20 years ago,” he told the Denver Post. “Twenty years later, it sounds like they just dusted off their old job.”
Edward Medina contributed to the report.