James G. Watt, who as President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior tilted environmental policies sharply toward commercial exploitation, sparking a national debate about developing or preserving America’s public lands and resources, died May 27 in Arizona. He was 85.
His son, Eric Watt, confirmed his death in a text message Thursday, but declined to give a cause.
After taking office in 1981, Mr. Watt was asked at a House Inland Committee hearing whether he favored preserving wild areas for future generations. He was handpicked by Reagan from a legal foundation in Denver that often challenged the rules and policies of the department he now led. Critics called it a fox in the henhouse.
He replied, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
Mr. Watt’s response startled some committee members, but appeared to explain his intention to ease restrictions on the use of millions of acres of public lands.
The remark was telling. Mr. Watt, a born-again Christian and lifelong Republican, saw himself as a servant of God and prayed with colleagues at work. But it raised questions about whether he would be motivated by conservative political judgments or religious convictions, or both.
It also hinted at a side of Mr. Watt that wasn’t initially apparent: a verbal tendency to shoot himself in the foot. At unguarded moments during the 33-month term, he suggested that liberals were un-American and that the popular rock group the Beach Boys was unhealthy. He likened his critics to Nazis and Bolsheviks and insulted blacks, women, Jews and the disabled.
In one of his first official statements, Mr Watt said Home Office policies over the years had veered too far towards conservation under the influence of “environmental extremists” and away from the development of public resources he said were needed. for economic growth and national security.
He soon turned over control of many of the resources to private industry, restoring what he believed to be a proper balance in the nation’s heritage. It opened up most of the Outer Continental Shelf—almost all of America’s coastal waters—to drilling leases from oil and gas companies. He expanded access to coal on federal lands and eased restrictions on the mine, which blighted the landscape and was cheaper than cutting deep mine shafts.
It increased industry access to wilderness areas for drilling, mineral extraction, and logging; gave private owners of hotels, restaurants and shops wider rights in national parks; limit the endangered species protection program; cutting land acquisition funds for national and state parks; and added money to build roads, bridges, hotels, and other man-made structures in the parks.
Not all of his initiatives are successful. Some have been blocked, in whole or in part, by congressional action, court rulings, and public backlash. Mr. Watt admitted that his plan to sell federal lands to reduce the national debt had failed because of widespread opposition.
Environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society have called for his dismissal. The coalition grew to include the National Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Isaac Walton League. A Sierra Club petition to recall him has garnered a million signatures.
Mr. Watt had the support of conservatives and western Republicans and private industry. Representative Don Young of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the House Public Lands Subcommittee, called him “the best Secretary of the Interior I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Watt aggressively attacked the critics. “I never use the words Democrats and Republicans,” he said in a favorite line. “These are liberals and Americans.” He became the Republican Party’s third most sought-after speaker, behind President Reagan and George W. Bush, who was then vice president.
But his self-confidence led to problems. Some of them were comical. He banned women’s pants in his department, but the decree was grossly violated. Declaring dissent, he turned the bison on the department’s logo from left to right. “If environmentalists’ problems can’t be solved at the jury box or the ballot box,” he remarked flippantly, “perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”
He accused his critics of using false environmental concerns to achieve “centralized planning and control of society”. He told Business Week: “Look at what happened to Germany in the 1930s. Human dignity was subordinated to the power of Nazism. Human dignity was subordinated in Russia. These are the forces in which this thing can evolve.
The blowback was swift. “The secretary is out of his mind,” said Gaylord Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin and chairman of the Wilderness Society. “It’s time for the people in the white coats to take him away.” Michael McCloskey, head of the Sierra Club, said: “Only James Watt could fail to see the difference between Hermann Goering and John Muir, the naturalist who founded the Sierra Club.
When planning began for the 1983 Independence Day celebration on the National Mall, Mr. Watt said the pop music groups held in recent years attracted “the wrong element” — possibly young people who drank and took drugs. The most famous band at The Mall were the Beach Boys, popular since the 1960s.
Mr. Watt, a Pentecostal fundamentalist who didn’t drink alcohol or smoke, suggested instead Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton, whose signature song was “Danke Schoen,” and military bands for the celebration, saying they would rather represent the patriotic, family-oriented themes he favored.
Protesters and disc jockeys branded Mr Watt a maniac. With his balding hair and gray complexion frowning behind 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 informed him, and gave Mr. Watt a souvenir trophy – a cast leg with a bullet hole in it.
After Mr. Watt told graduates of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College (now known as Liberty University) that the United States was “God’s chosen place,” and said, “We have abandoned the political role of the religious left,” an editorial in The The New York Times declared: “Mr. Watt shoots the other leg.’
He made his latest blunder in a conversation with a business group. Upset by a Senate vote barring him from leasing more federal land for coal mining, he described a panel reviewing his coal leasing policies as having “any kind of mix — I’ve got black. I have a wife, two Jews and an invalid.
Protests and calls for his resignation erupted, joined by members of Congress and expressions of displeasure from the White House. Mr. Watt apologized publicly. But the administration had become a perceived environmental enemy and Mr. Watt a political liability. He resigned on October 9, 1983. President Reagan said he “reluctantly accepted” the resignation. Mr. Watt was succeeded by William P. Clark.
James Guy Watt was born in Lusk, Wyo., on the high plains in the eastern part of the state, on January 31, 1938, to William and Lois Mae (Williams) Watt. His father was a lawyer and a businessman. James shared the chores around the ranch, mending fences and pumping water for the cattle. He attended high school in Wheatland, Wyo., and graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1960 and law school in 1962.
In 1957, he married his high school sweetheart, Leilani Baumgardner. They had two children: Erin and Eric. They all experience it.
In Washington, Mr. Watt was a legislative assistant to Wyoming Republican Senator Millward L. Simpson. He became a born-again Christian in 1964 after attending an evangelical meeting. In 1966, he was hired as a lobbyist for the United States Chamber of Commerce, promoting business interests and opposing controls on energy, water, and environmental pollution.
When former Governor Walter J. Hickel, of Alaska, became President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of the interior, Mr. Watt was named deputy in charge of water and energy resources. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford appointed him to the Federal Energy Commission. He became a supporter of the “Wormwood Rebellion,” a Western movement seeking regional control of public resources.
In 1977, Mr. Watt became president and general counsel of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, established by Colorado brewer Joseph Coors Sr. to protect property rights. He filed many lawsuits to challenge the Department of the Interior’s environmental policies.
He and Reagan knew that his nomination for Secretary of the Interior would attract opposition because of his anti-environmental and pro-development activities. But he was easily confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate after insisting that controlled resource development would shore up the nation in an energy crisis.
After leaving government, Mr. Watt was a lobbyist for developers seeking Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts from 1984 to 1986. In 1995, he was indicted on 25 counts of perjury and obstruction of justice by a federal grand jury. , investigating fraud and influence peddling during his HUD lobbying But the prosecution’s case soured, felony charges were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. He was sentenced to a $5,000 fine and 500 hours of community service.
Mr. Watt, who had a home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and in recent years lived in Wickenburg, Ariz., co-authored “The Courage of a Conservative” (1985, with Doug Weed), about conservative political agendas.
In 2001, when the George W. Bush administration proposed drilling for oil on public lands in an effort to address the nation’s energy problems, Mr. Watt welcomed the approach proposed 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 looks like they just dusted off the old work.”
Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.