News & Politics

Son of James Watt

Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles has an agenda every bit as radical as James Watt's was. He thinks no one's paying attention -- but he's wrong.
When I was 8 years old, I was given a petition to take around to my fellow kindergarteners to oust James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan. My friends took out their big kindergarten pencils, signed their names and joined over one million Americans in opposing Watt's attempt to destroy our public lands.

The petitions worked. The day President Reagan fired James Watt was the day the modern environmental movement was born. It was a shot over the bow -- a sign that the people of the United States claimed the public lands, and that politicians who threatened those lands would do so at their own peril. Millions of Americans joined organizations like the Sierra Club in order to keep a watchful eye over future administrations and ensure that public lands would not be sacrificed for oil and gas development. James Watt openly attacked the values of conservation for future generations. No Secretary of the Interior since his time -- Democrat or Republican -- has dared do the same.

Until now. The heartwarming platitudes of our current Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, are attempts to distract attention from the Administration's Wattian agenda. Spearheading this agenda is Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles. Griles -- referred to as the chief operating officer of the department by President Bush -- meets frequently with White House officials. His agenda is every bit as radical as James Watt's, and he has a personal financial stake in leasing our public lands for oil and gas development. Griles is a "former" oil and gas lobbyist who still receives $284,000.00 a year from his old firm, National Environmental Strategies.

During his confirmation hearings, Griles signed a recusal document promising not to lobby on behalf of his former clients. According to documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, however, he has lobbied on behalf of those clients to loosen regulations surrounding coalbed methane development in the Rocky Mountain West. Coalbed methane development threatens to waste over one trillion gallons of public water in the arid West pollute groundwater and destroy animal habitats.

Further violating his recusal, Griles has met with numerous former clients and business partners associated with issues from which he supposedly recused himself. Time and time again, the deputy secretary has favored industry demands over environmental protection. He has allowed -- and is continuing to allow -- public land to be used by private interests for private gain. Once depleted and spoiled, the bulk of this land will be incapable of being restored to its original condition, or anything close.

During the Reagan administration, Griles was involved in selling 17,000 acres of federal land to a private company for $42,000, well below market value. Several months later, the buyers resold the land, and turned a $37 million profit.

Griles is up to his old tricks again, and environmentalists and Democrats aren't the only groups he has angered. Even the mainstream organization, Republicans for Environmental Protection, is unhappy with the Bush Administration's environmental policies, many of which have been engineered and executed by Griles. In fact, when the Republican organization graded the Administration on its environmental record in eight issue areas, the Administration received six D's, a B-minus for farm policy and an F for energy policy.

The Inspector General from the Interior Department has been dragging his feet in the investigation of these dealings. Clearly it's time for American citizens to take matters into our own hands. The land that's being sold, depleted and destroyed in the name of private profit is our land, after all, not Griles'.

Just like James Watt, J. Steven Griles has repeatedly violated the public trust in order to benefit a select group of private companies and individuals. He thinks no one's paying attention, but he's wrong. It's time to launch a new petition drive to fire Griles. Twenty-two years after James Watt was fired, there is a new generation of kindergarteners to lead the way.

Adam Werbach is the former president of Sierra Club. For more information on the petition, visit

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