James Gaius Watt (born January 31, 1938) served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior for President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1983.
Early life and career
Watt was born in Lusk, Wyoming. He attended the University of Wyoming, earning a bachelor's degree during 1960 and a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree during 1962. Watt's first political job was as an aide to Republican Party Senator Milward L. Simpson of Wyoming, whom he met through Simpson's son, Alan.
During 1966, Watt became the secretary to the natural resources committee and environmental pollution advisory panel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During 1969, Watt was appointed the deputy assistant secretary of water and power development for the Department of the Interior. During 1975, Watt was appointed the vice-chairman of the Federal Power Commission. During 1976, Watt initiated the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a law company "dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government and economic freedom." A number of attorneys who worked for Watt at the foundation later assumed jobs of responsibility with the federal government, including Ann Veneman and Gale Norton.
Secretary of Interior
During 1980, President-elect Reagan chose Watt to be his Secretary of the Interior. He was soon after approved by the United States Senate.
Watt's tenure as Secretary of the Interior was controversial, resulting primarily from his alleged hostility to environmentalism and his endorsement of the development and use of federal lands by foresting, ranching, and other commercial interests.
According to the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, for more than two decades, Watt had the record for protecting the fewest species by the Endangered Species Act in United States history. The record was surpassed by Dirk Kempthorne, a George W. Bush appointee who, as of August 27, 2007, had not listed a single species in the 15 months since his confirmation.
Greg Wetstone, who was the chief environment council at the House Energy and Commerce Committee during the Reagan administration and later served as director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Watt was one of the two most "intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees" of American history. (The other was Anne Gorsuch, director of the EPA at that time.) According to the environmental groups, Watt decreased funding for environmental programs, restructured the department to decrease federal regulatory power, wished to eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund (which had been designed to increase the size of National Wildlife Refuges and other protected land), eased regulations of oil and mining companies, began efforts and directed the National Park Service to draft legislation that would have de-authorized a number of previously Congressionally authorized National Parks, and favored making wilderness areas and shorelands, such as the Santa Monica Bay in southern California, available to commercial leasing for oil and gas exploration and development.
Watt resisted accepting donations of private land to be used for conservation purposes. He suggested that all 80 million acres (320,000 km ) of undeveloped land in the United States be opened for drilling and mining in the year 2000. The area leased to coal mining companies quintupled during his term as Secretary of the Interior. Watt boasted that he leased "a billion acres" (4 million km ) of U.S. coastal waters, even though only a small portion of that area would ever be drilled. Watt once stated, "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber."
Watt periodically mentioned his Dispensationalist Christian faith when discussing his method of environmental management. Speaking before Congress, he once 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 to leave the resources needed for future generations."
One apocryphal quote attributed to Watt is "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." However, there are no reliable indications that he actually ever said this. Glenn Scherer, writing for Grist Magazine, erroneously attributed this remark to 1981 testimony by Watt to Congress. Journalist Bill Moyers, relying on the Grist article, also attributed the comment to Watt. After it was discovered that the quote was mistaken, Grist corrected their article and Moyers apologized. Watt has denied both the attribution and the associated characterizations of his policy.
From 1980 through 1982, The Beach Boys and The Grass Roots separately performed Independence Day concerts on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attracting large crowds. However, during April 1983, Watt, while serving as Secretary of the Interior, banned Independence Day concerts on the Mall by such groups. Watt said that "rock bands" that had performed on the Mall on Independence Day during 1981 and 1982 had encouraged drug use and alcoholism and had attracted "the wrong element", who would rob people and families attending any similar events in the future. Watt then announced that Las Vegas singer Wayne Newton, a friend and endorser of President Reagan and a contributor to Republican Party political campaigns, would perform at the Mall's 1983 Independence Day celebration. During the ensuing controversy, Rob Grill, main singer of The Grass Roots, stated that he felt "highly insulted" by Watt's remarks, which he termed "nothing but un-American". The Beach Boys stated that the Soviet Union, which had invited them to perform in Leningrad during 1978, "obviously .... did not feel that the group attracted the wrong element". Vice President George H. W. Bush said of The Beach Boys, "They're my friends and I like their music". Watt apologized to The Beach Boys after learning that President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were fans of the group. Nancy Reagan apologized for Watt. White House staff presented Watt with a plaster foot with a hole in it, symbolizing his having "shot himself in the foot" with his decision. When Newton entered an Independence Day stage on the Mall on July 4, 1983, members of the audience booed him. During his time as the Secretary of the Interior, The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson poked fun of Watts' last name, saying "James What? What?"
During an interview with the Satellite Program Network, Watt said that "If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don't go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations."
A public controversy erupted after a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Watt during September 1983, when he mocked affirmative action by saying about a coal-leasing panel: "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent." Within weeks of making this statement, Watt submitted his resignation letter. During 2008, Time Magazine named Watt as the sixth worst cabinet member in modern American history.
During 1995, Watt was indicted on 25 counts of felony perjury and obstruction of justice by a federal grand jury. The indictments were due to false statements made to a grand jury investigating influence peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he had lobbied in the mid-to-late 1980s. On January 2, 1996, as part of a plea bargain, Watt pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of withholding documents from a federal grand jury. On March 12, 1996 he was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and perform 500 hours of community service.
During a March 1991 dinner event organized by the Green River Cattlemen's Association in Wyoming, Watt said, "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used."
During a 2001 interview, Watt applauded the Bush administration energy strategy and said its prioritization of oil drilling and coal mining above conservation is just what he recommended during the early 1980s. "Everything Cheney's saying, everything the president's saying they're saying exactly what we were saying 20 years ago, precisely ... Twenty years later, it sounds like they've just dusted off the old work."
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