Voices: Thank you, James Watt

Of all the names synonymous with American conservation — Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey, and Teddy Roosevelt, among others — one towers oddly above the rest in Greater Yellowstone as a signature force behind a generation of astonishing accomplishments.

James Watt.

Yes, that James Watt.

The same James Watt who as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1981-83 quintupled leases for coal mining and boasted about opening more than a billion acres of coastal waters for oil and gas development. The same James Watt who believed the only good tree was a dead tree stacked in a sawmill lumberyard. The same James Watt who sought to de-authorize many national parks.

Oh, and the same James Watt who once said, half-jokingly (I think), “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

All of which explains why, as a conservationist, I owe a lot to Mr. Watt — my employment with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition included.

Hearken back to 1980. Greater Yellowstone’s conservation community had a scant few full-time staffers patrolling the region. The term “ecosystem” had yet to come from the lips of anyone in any official capacity. GYC wasn’t a glint in even the greenest of eyes.

Enter Mr. Watt.

Citing divine inspiration and obligation, the bald, bespeckled Reagan appointee from Lusk, Wyo., earned instant notoriety for promising, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more.” Leaving few lands and waters un-coveted even in his home state, Watt revealed plans to drill on 350,000 acres in the rugged Washakie Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

Alarm bells rang from sea to still-shining sea.

“It was a scary time,” remembers Rick Reese of Bozeman, Mont., a GYC co-founder. “(Watt) was only secretary for a couple of years, but he came out with both barrels blazing. And he was just getting started.”

As unfathomable as opening wilderness to industry seemed, even more ominous was realizing that such activities would put Yellowstone itself at grave risk. The park’s health, we were beginning to fully understand, is inextricably linked to the health of lands adjacent.

That GYC was formed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the final year of Watt’s brief, ultra-controversial reign is no coincidence.

At the time, the grim future of the grizzly bear — imperiled symbol of America’s rapidly vanishing wildness — was of immediate concern. But it was quickly evident to our founders that preserving the park required protecting a larger landscape, and GYC has been America’s voice for a Greater Yellowstone ever since.

Meanwhile, conservation achievements in the region since Watt exited in disgrace in 1983 have been astounding.

Grizzly bears have more than tripled in numbers and roam places they’ve been absent for generations. With wolves restored, Greater Yellowstone is one of the last largely intact temperate ecosystems on the planet. Wyoming and Montana have since added wilderness.

“Ecosystem” is now part of our everyday lexicon, and at least 200 conservation-oriented non-profit groups have fingers in the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone pie.

As GYC celebrates our 30th anniversary this fall, the region arguably is healthier ecologically and economically than at any time since the park’s creation in 1872.

These accomplishments bode well for our future, too. A comprehensive study by Bozeman’s Headwaters Economics suggests that prosperity in the West will increasingly hinge on immediate proximity to public lands with strong protections.

Many visionaries and their supporters merit a robust “thank you” for the incomparable quality of life we cherish today in Greater Yellowstone. Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt would no doubt approve.

But there is something to be said for the man whose visions of an industrial juggernaut galvanized millions and birthed an entire generation of conservationists.

“If you talk to anybody who was in American conservation at the time, they would tell you Watt did us a huge favor,” Reese says. “There was an explosive growth in organizational capacity, and that was in direct response to Jim Watt.”

Indeed, with enemies like that, who needed friends?

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