The pending nomination of Helena attorney Rebecca W. Watson as assistant Interior Department secretary for land and minerals management is raising red flags among environmental activists and American Indian leaders throughout the west.
Watson, 49, has close ties with the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has a long history of fighting Indian religious rights, affirmative action laws, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and an array of wildlife and wildland protection statutes. One of the group’s current lawsuits seeks to overturn Montana’s landmark stream access law.
A friend of Interior Secretary Gail Norton since law school, Watson served on the Foundation’s litigation board from mid-1999 until last February. Norton previously worked as a staff attorney for the group, which is funded largely by extractive industries, land developers and far-right political activists.
Interior Department officials say President Bush will soon tap Watson for the post, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM). The three agencies have combined budgets of nearly $1.8 billion and more than 12,000 employees. The U.S. Senate must confirm her appointment.
“Rebecca is an outstanding attorney and public administration professional,” Norton says in a prepared statement. “She will bring vast experience in protecting natural resources and listening to all voices to find common ground in public land issues.”
The BLM manages 264 million acres of public land and also controls an additional 300 million acres of subsurface mineral resources, many of which are being closely eyed for potential development. The MMS oversees the nation’s natural gas, oil and other energy resources on the outer continental shelf and collects revenues from mineral leases on federal and tribal lands. The OSM works with states and tribes to reclaim coal mining sites and ensures that new mines operate in a responsible manner.
Until recently, Watson was an attorney of record challenging a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Montana’s Blaine County. The lawsuit alleges that county officials violated the Voting Rights Act because they maintain an at-large voting system that has prevented Indian candidates from being elected to the county’s board of commissioners.
In an interview, Watson says she merely served as local counsel in the case because Montana law prohibits out-of-state lawyers from litigating cases without a cooperating, state-licensed attorney.
“I was not directly involved in the pleadings, arguments or anything,” she tells the Independent. “That’s not me.” She says that she left the Mountain States board because “it was just time to move on” and has not attended many of the panel’s meetings because of other commitments.
Watson represented the 7-Up Pete Joint Venture when environmental groups sued over illegal water discharges from test wells at the proposed McDonald mine site near Lincoln. In 1999, the Montana Supreme Court ruled against the venture and said the Montana constitution guarantees every citizen the right to a clean and healthful environment.
Tim Coulter, director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, says he is concerned that Watson’s longtime advocacy for mining interests could color her views while dealing with BLM issues that involve tribes.
“The management of BLM lands is a major concern, and I expect that’s true for many Indian tribes in the West,” Coulter says. “It does not appear from her past experience that she’ll represent tribal interests. She represents the resource users, not indigenous peoples.”
“I hope people think I’m fair and that I listen to people,” Watson counters. “I don’t think I come with any preconceived notions. I want to be open and listen to their concerns. How management of the public lands can improve the lives of Native Americans’ poverty on reservations is one of my concerns. I’m aware of the hardship issues and I want to see how that can be improved.”
But conservationists, among other critics, are convinced that Watson is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.
“I think it’s quite clear that the most polluting industries in this country are now in complete control of the Interior Department,” said Montana Environmental Information Center Director Jim Jensen. “It’s just blind adherence to industrial ideology. Becky Watson’s appointment is an affront to the American people who own these lands. What Becky Watson and Gail Norton are trying to do is convert them from the public domain to the private dominion of corporations bent on destroying the lands for profit.”
Watson is considered an authority on the federal Endangered Species Act and has litigated numerous cases over its provisions, including one for her husband’s employer, the Plum Creek Timber Company. She was also the company’s attorney in the Swan Valley’s Middle Soup Creek case, where the state was found to have inadequately prepared environmental reviews for a major sale of timber to Plum Creek in 1997.
Watson has also supported Montana’s efforts to weaken water quality standards and allow coal-bed methane development without comprehensive environmental review. She’s the lead attorney for the Montana Snowmobile Association and says she provides advice for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national group of motorized off-road enthusiasts.
“Our opinion is that this position is to represent everyone, not just industry,” says Arlene Boyd, head of the Stillwater Protective Association, an affiliate of the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council. “We’d like to see someone with a more diverse background. We’d like to see someone there who would take these regulations seriously and enforce them fairly, respect the role of regulation in protecting the land and the people, as well as industry. In our view, she’s never done that.”
“My greatest concern comes out of my experience as opposing counsel,” adds Laura Ziemer, director of the Montana Water Project for Trout Unlimited. “I’ve found her to be more interested in pushing a particular philosophical point of view than dealing with the specifics of a case. She has a record of being unwilling to let go of preconceived notions. That’s required of public servants. I think she’s rigidly ideological.”
But Watson maintains that despite her past focus on neutering environmental laws, she can now be an advocate for the public interest as well.
“I’d like to bring a new dialogue to the discussions on public land use,” she says. “Most issues aren’t black and white. I’d like to find the common ground. I think there is common ground, and you can have resource protection and economic growth. I don’t think it’s either-or.”