James “Jim” Watt, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior from Lusk, died recently at the age of 85 in Arizona. 

Born, raised and educated in Wyoming, Watt rose to national prominence when President Ronald Reagan nominated him for the high post at Interior in 1980. By then, Watt had already made a name for himself back home in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West, especially among ranchers, farmers and miners who believed the federal government infringed on their livelihoods. He also founded and helmed the Mountain States Legal Foundation — a powerful and aggressive law office which pioneered a model of challenging environmental and public-lands regulations. In fact, the organization had pending lawsuits against the department when he took charge of it, according to reporting from the era. 

Watt gained a reputation as one of Reagan’s most controversial cabinet appointments, mostly for uncompromising views on environmentalism — an attribute that both landed him, and cost him, the job. 

“When Jim became Secretary of Interior he told me of the things that needed doing, the things that had to be set straight,” Reagan said in a 1983 radio address following Watt’s resignation. “He also told me that if and when he did them, he’d probably have to resign in 18 months.” 

Watt’s stint atop Interior lasted 33 months and was distinct for its flavor of righteousness. He fired dozens of staff attorneys and other personnel involved in enforcement of environmental standards, saying they’d been hired illegally by the Carter administration. Watt also called for a moratorium on all new land acquisitions for the National Park System and steered a proposal by Reagan’s economic advisors to sell up to 5% of the country’s public lands to reduce the national deficit.

His term followed a transformative era for land and environmental policy.  The passage of the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act in the 1970s had spawned a fierce rural western opposition movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. It was still in full swing when Watt assumed responsibility for the BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and every other interior department agency. Reagan gave Watt clear orders. 

“I was to bring about massive change in the way our federal lands and western waters were being managed so that all of Americans could benefit and enjoy them,” Watt said during a 2004 event at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. “I was to change the policies so that the federal government would be considered a good neighbor by the Western governors, state legislators, county commissioners, mayors and the users of the land.”

An undated photograph of James Watt. (University of Wyoming/American Heritage Center/James G. Watt Papers/Accession Number 07667, Box 8, Folder 7)

Watt responded with deep budget cuts along with shifting recreation funding responsibility to the states. 

He described his management and land-use philosophy as one that prioritized people and their economic needs. When onshore and offshore federal lands leased to oil and gas development doubled and 3.5 times more federal lands were leased to coal mining, Watt called his efforts “marvelously successful” in a letter he sent to the president in 1983. 

“I did that because I’m people-oriented. People need energy. People need electricity; you have to dig coal,” Watt said. He also considered Reagan’s Park Restoration and Improvement Program “the largest commitment that has been made to the National Park System.” The program moved money away from land acquisition and into already-existing park infrastructure needs. 

“If you don’t keep the people on the boardwalks in Yellowstone, they fall in geyser holes and ruin our system, not to mention the meat falls off the bones,” Watt said in 2004. “So I built boardwalks and was accused from some selfish interests that, ‘Well, you’re not investing in the land.’ I’m investing for people.”

In 1983 Watt extended an agreement for the Jackson Hole Airport to continue operating in Grand Teton National Park, effectively cementing the fate of a major commercial airport that had begun as just a landing strip. To this day, it is the only commercial airport located entirely inside a national park and considerably eases the ability for tourists who can afford to fly to visit the otherwise remote valley. 

Watt also sparked headlines for making an enemy of the Beach Boys. He thwarted the band’s Fourth of July plans to play on the National Mall for being what he called “the wrong element.” The decision chagrined his boss and First Lady Nancy Reagan, who were fans of the music. For shooting himself in the foot, the White House awarded Watt with a plaster foot with a hole in it. 

Decades before the blunder, Watt had gotten his start in politics on the campaign trail with Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. Milward Simpson, whom he met in his adolescent years. Born in Lusk, Watt moved to Wheatland in 8th grade where his mother managed the historic Globe Hotel — then the town’s gathering spot. It was there that Watt got to know Simpson, when the then governor of Wyoming would stay at the hotel on state business. 

Taking after his father, Watt went to law school at the University of Wyoming. Days after graduation, he hit the campaign trail for Simpson’s congressional race. His main objective, he told the American Heritage Center in 2003, was to organize small town activities where Simpson could shake hands and rebut the critique that he was not as conservative as his primary opponent, Kenny Sailors, of UW basketball fame. 

An undated photograph of James Watt (left) and Wyoming Sen. Milward Simpson (right). (University of Wyoming/American Heritage Center/James G. Watt Papers/Accession Number 07667, Box 8, Folder 9)

After a general election victory, Watt arrived in Washington D.C. in 1962 to work as Simpson’s legislative assistant and counsel. A lifelong Republican, Watt served in a variety of federal positions during the tenures of six different presidents, including deputy assistant secretary of Interior’s water and power development and vice chairman of the Federal Power Commission. 

After his confirmation to Interior’s top job, Watt caught flak for his religious views when he told a congressional panel, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” 

“I am a follower of Christ and I was asked in a hearing about that and I commented that we didn’t know how soon before the Lord returned and this thing just blew up on me,” Watt said in 2004. “The five or six big environmentalist lobbyist groups in Washington just blew it out of proportion.”

“That was the incident that caused me to first think that Jim Watt had a great sense of humor,” said Gregg Cawley, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming. Cawley spent time examining Watt’s reputation while researching a 1993 book on the Sagebrush Rebellion. 

“The whole conversation in the committee hearings was done in humor,” Cawley said. “But when it got printed in the media, it became deadly serious.” 

No doubt Watt was pro-development and anti-regulation but, Cawley said, context was often left out of reports about Watt. Altogether, that reputation made Watt a great fundraiser for both Republicans and environmental groups, Cawley added. Eventually, Cawley got to know Watt personally. First, when he sent Watt his book and then in 1993 when Watt became UW’s Milward Simpson Distinguished Professor of Political Science. 

Watt quit his high post at Interior after a discriminatory joke about the makeup of a coal advisory commission made him a political liability for Reagan. 

“We have every kind of mixture you can have,” he said. “I have a Black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” 

His decision to resign in 1983 was made “in anguish,” U.S. Sen. Al Simpson told the New York Times at the time. Watt remained in Washington for several years, working as a lobbyist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Eventually, he retired to Arizona and Wyoming. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of withholding documents from a federal grand jury investigating alleged corruption at HUD. 

From then on, Watt mostly stayed out of public life, but continued to talk a fiery game.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify details regarding the increase of energy leasing on public lands under Watt. —Ed.

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. You featured a picture of him killing something with a great big grin. And the Jim Gotchell memorial museum is introduced, before you even go in, by a man with a huge pistol intent on killing something, presumably another human (indigenous). Wyoming is feeling murderous. You are needing a new type of hero. Wyoming was progressive in its history: “1890 — Wyoming becomes the first state to grant women the right to vote in its state elections.” https://yourdream.liveyourdream.org/2017/03/history-of-womens-rights-america/?
    Time to remember that progressive dream, Wyoming

  2. Well, the passing of anyone should bring kind and thoughtful words. I agree on Dan’s comments. I spent two hours walking through Paradise lower meadows ( Mt Rainier NP) with Mr Watt and his wife. I was not on duty but coming down from skiing on the Muir Snowfield.The meadows were in full bloom. James Watt was a zealot not worthy of the responsibility of the Secretary of the Interior. His replacement upon resignation was worse.

  3. Jim Watt liked people, at least people that agreed with him and liked the music he liked. He did not believe in supporting the environmental and conservation laws that make it possible for people to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and walk in untrammeled spaces.

    It was a great day when he left Interior.

    1. What do you mean? Washington is full of politicians who want to destroy the environment!

  4. The patron saint of the Jackson airport in a National Park in the middle of critical grouse and wildlife habitat and he then proceeded to live there. Oh the humanity.

    1. Love him or hate him James Watt did not serve with grace and humility!
      Also he was opposed to the Vietnam war memorial wall.