James “Jim” Watt, the former Interior Secretary, passed away on May 27, 2023, at the age of 85. While his tenure as Interior Secretary during the Reagan administration defined him, his career spanned various roles and contributions. Born and raised in Wyoming, Watt carried a unique perspective on the region that influenced his work.
Watt’s tenure was marked by controversial moments, including a 1981 House Committee Briefing where he made a casual reference to the Second Coming of Christ while discussing his responsibilities as secretary. Yet, it is important to examine the nuanced role that evangelical and populist rhetoric played in shaping Watt’s political language and policy decisions and how he applied the rhetoric to garner support for his policies. These elements were utilized by Watt to justify an anti-environmental stance, which reflected a notable shift in the landscape of anti-environmentalist politics. Prominently, Watt became a proponent of the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a Western movement that sought regional control of public resources. While encountering staunch opposition from environmentalists and lawmakers, Watt’s tenure faced challenges, culminating in his resignation in 1983 following a widely condemned joke about minorities.
James Watt was born in Lusk in 1938 and later moved to Wheatland with his family. Growing up in the West instilled in him a hard-nosed view of the region, marked by firsthand experiences of harsh weather conditions and the importance of water and land. As a native of the West, Watt understood the value of the region and its resources, which would shape his career and approach to policymaking.
During the early stages of his political career, James Watt served under Milward Simpson, a U.S. Senator from Wyoming. In 1962, Watt joined Simpson’s campaign for a Senate seat, taking on the role of an issues person responsible for opposition research, planning, and organization. This experience provided Watt with valuable insights into the world of politics and set the stage for his future endeavors in shaping natural resource policies. Serving under Simpson allowed Watt to gain a deeper understanding of the concerns and aspirations of Westerners, which would influence his later work as a federal power commissioner and Interior Secretary.
In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford named him to the Federal Power Commission, where he struggled with routing the ambitious Trans Alaska Pipeline to bring oil from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope to the rest of the country. Soon after, in 1977, he became president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative legal advocacy group based in Denver that challenged government regulations through lawsuits and played a significant role in shaping conservative strategies for natural resource management. His extensive knowledge of environmental policy and legal acumen proved invaluable in addressing complex challenges faced by the Foundation and its supporters.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan nominated James Watt as Interior Secretary. Watt’s policies, such as offshore oil and gas leasing and large-scale coal lease auctions, drew widespread criticism. He proposed cuts to land acquisition funding, withdrew strip-mining regulations, and significantly reduced protections under the Endangered Species Act. Watt’s blunt manner, coupled with his controversial policies, strained his relationships with environmentalists, lawmakers from both parties, and eventually even the White House itself.
Throughout his career, Watt faced opposition and scrutiny, exemplified by a two-volume set of negative information compiled by the Wilderness Society known as the “Watt Book,” which is housed in box 17 of Watt’s papers at the AHC. Yet, it was Watt’s own words that led to his resignation from the Reagan administration. During a 1983 public speech regarding his coal-leasing policies he noted that the panel reviewing those policies included “every kind of mixture—I have a Black. I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” The remark created immediate backlash from Congress and the public, prompting his departure as Interior Secretary on November 8, 1983.
Nevertheless, James Watt’s impact as a lightning rod for the Reagan administration’s policies cannot be denied. Although he faced criticism, Watt remained steadfast in his conservative beliefs and loyalty to the mission of supporting energy development on federal lands. Watt’s controversial legacy continues to resonate, and his life’s work serves as a reminder of the ongoing debate over natural resource management and the balance between conservation and development.
For those interested in delving deeper into the life and legacy of James Watt, his papers are available for research at the American Heritage Center. The Center’s collections include a comprehensive oral history interview conducted with Watt in 2003 as part of the Milward L. Simpson Family Oral History Project. These invaluable archival materials offer insights into his career, controversies, and the complexities of his time as Interior Secretary. Researchers and historians can explore the rich collection to gain a comprehensive understanding of Watt’s contributions and the political climate in which he operated.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.