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James G . Watt served as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior from January 23, 1981, to November 8, 1983, during President Ronald Reagan’s first term. Watt is a Wyoming native and a staunch Republican. Prior to being appointed to the Interior position, Watt drew the attention of President Reagan for his work as founder and leader of the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), an organization that supported and encouraged the expanded extraction of oil, timber, and mineral resources. The MSLF was identified as a strong antienvironmental organization. Earlier in his governmental career Watt worked as Secretary to the Natural Resources Committee and Environmental Pollution Advisory Panel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 1969, Watt received appointment as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Water and Power Development in the Department of the Interior. He also worked briefly for the Federal Power Commission before founding the MSLF.
During his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Watt was widely criticized for his positions on environmental programs. In April 1981, just three months after his appointment, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations were calling for his dismissal. Over a million signatures demanding his dismissal were presented to Congress as evidence of general displeasure with his stance on the environment. Watt cut funding for the Endangered Species Act and strongly suggested expanding the offering of oil and gas leases in wilderness areas and in offshore regions.
Watt is remembered for his statements linking stewardship of the land and religion. In February 1981 in testimony before the House Interior Committee, Watt said, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns; whatever it is we have to manage with a skill so as to leave the resources needed for future generations.” There is a hint of the conservationist in this statement, but further statements suggested otherwise. Watt stated on one occasion that “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.” It is this philosophy that quickly caught the attention of environmentalists. Watt’s political stance was never in doubt; in 1982 he stated, “I never use the words Democrat and Republican. It’s liberals and Americans.”
Watt was politically linked with Anne M. Gorsuch, administrator of the Environmental Protective Agency, who reduced the effectiveness of the organization and sought to ease environmental regulations on industry. Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society were able to significantly increase their membership ranks in response to the actions of the two perceived antienvironmentalists. Watt was forced to leave his post following comments he made about his staff to members of the U.S. Commission on Fair Market Value Policy for Federal Coal Leasing to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on September 21, 1983: “We have here every mixture you can have. I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” Within weeks of this statement, Watt resigned.
When President George W. Bush appointed Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior, environmentalists were again concerned. Norton had served as a staff member under Watt in the MSLF and it was feared that she would replicate the environmental stance taken by Watt. Under President Bush, environmentalists saw a resurrection of many of the goals Watt furthered in the early 1980s. The notion of placing production ahead of conservation, presented in a speech by Vice President Richard Cheney in 2001, is a clear reflection of the Watt philosophy. Watt himself commented on the Bush position in an interview for the Denver Post in 2001, “Everything Cheney’s saying, everything the president’s saying-they’re saying exactly what we were saying 20 years ago, precisely.”
- P. Bratton, “The Ecotheology of James Watt,” Environmental Ethics (v.5/fall, 1983);
- G.C. Coggins and K. Nagel, “Nothing Beside Remains: The Legal Legacy of James G. Watt’s Tenure as Secretary of the Interior on Federal Land Law and Policy,” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review (v.17/spring, 1990);
- Carolyn Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (Columbia University Press, 2002).