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Pending nomination of Rebecca Watson raises red flags

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HELENA, Mont. ? The pending nomination of Helena attorney Rebecca W. Watson as assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management is raising red flags among American Indian leaders and environmental activists.

Watson, 49, has close ties with the ultra-conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has a long history of fighting Indian religious rights, affirmative action laws, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, public access issues and an array of federal wildlife and wildland protection statutes.

One of the group's most recent cases is a challenge to a National Park Service rule barring tourists from Indian sacred areas at Utah's Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

Watson, a friend of Interior Secretary Gail Norton since they attended law school together, served on the Denver-based foundation's national litigation board from mid-1999 until February. Norton previously worked as a staff attorney for the foundation, largely funded by extractive industries, land developers and far-right political activists. In one recent case, Mountain States argues 11,000 acres of private land within the Crow Indian Reservation is improperly under the legal jurisdiction of the Crow Nation.

Interior officials say President Bush will soon nominate Watson for the post, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The three agencies have combined budgets of nearly $1.8 billion and more than 12,000 employees. The U.S. Senate must confirm the appointment.

"Rebecca is an outstanding attorney and public administration professional," Norton said 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, much of it on Aboriginal homeland and outside reservations across the West. The bureau also controls an additional 300 million acres of subsurface mineral resources, many of which are being closely eyed for potential development.

Meanwhile, the Minerals Management Service oversees the nation's natural gas, oil and other energy resources on the outer continental shelf and collects more than $5 billion a year in revenues from mineral leases on federal and tribal lands. The Office of Surface Mining works with states and tribes to reclaim coal mining sites and ensure that new mines operate in a responsible manner.

Until recently, Watson was an attorney of record challenging a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Montana's Blaine County. The government alleges county officials are in violation of 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.

Mountain States attorney J. Scott Detamore, who actually litigated the matter at trial last month, contends Indians are not discriminated against by the system and that the federal government is overstepping its authority over states' rights by demanding any changes that would result in "racial gerrymandering." Mountain States, co-founded by former Interior Secretary James Watt, is representing the county free of charge.

In an interview, Watson said 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," Watson told Indian Country Today. "That's not me." She added that she left the Mountain States board nine months ago because "it was just time to move on" and she had failed to attend many of the panel's meetings because of other commitments.

"I was not as involved as I thought I should be," the Chicago native said.

Watson maintains she has not been directly involved in any anti-sovereignty fights against Indians and in fact helped the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes get concerns about cultural sites incorporated into development plans for the proposed 7-Up Pete Joint Venture's McDonald gold mine on the Blackfoot River in western Montana.

Watson, a partner in Helena's Gough, Shanahan, Johnson and Waterman law firm, represented the mining company when three environmental groups sued over water discharges from test wells at the site. In 1999, the Montana Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in the case that says Montana citizens have a fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment under the state constitution and that state regulators improperly issued the company's discharge permits.

The McDonald mine proposal was mothballed when Montana voters subsequently approved an initiative banning new cyanide heap-leach mines in the state.

Tim Coulter, executive director of the Helena-based Indian Law Resource Center, said he is concerned that Watson's longtime advocacy for mining interests could color her views in an ongoing dispute between the BLM and Western Shoshone tribal members in Nevada. BLM officials maintain some tribal members are improperly using and occupying federal lands they claim are ancestral and the agency has repeatedly threatened to confiscate their livestock.

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Coulter said some of the disputed land is being eyed by the government for mineral development. Because of refusal by the U.S. judiciary to resolve the tribal land claims, the center filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where the matter is pending. He said he's also worried about BLM's management of the heavily contaminated Zortman-Landusky mine complex near Montana's Fort Belknap Reservation. Full reclamation of the mines is the focus of an ongoing lawsuit litigated by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes and the center.

"The management of BLM lands is a major concern, and I expect that's true for many Indian tribes in the West," Coulter said. "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 said. "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 environmentalists, among others, are convinced Watson is a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.

"I think it's quite clear that the most polluting industries in this country are in complete control of the Interior Department," said Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. "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."

Jensen said he's thinks Watson, who worked as a high-level attorney for the U.S. Department of Energy in the previous Bush administration, does not have the experience for the job.

"She is simply not qualified for this position," Jensen charged. "The last thing we need for Native Americans and their trust management is another inexperienced or unqualified administrator."

Watson, who holds three degrees from the University of Denver, said she managed seven employees at her Energy Department job. She is considered one of the nation's top authorities on the federal Endangered Species Act and has litigated numerous cases over its provisions, including for her husband's employer, the Plum Creek Timber Co.

Watson, who says she's a member of The Nature Conservancy, also has argued a variety of government "takings" cases and 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 said she provides advice for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national group of motorized off-road enthusiasts.

Questioned about her broader views on land stewardship, however, Watson said she'd prefer to be grilled by the Senate.

"It's just an awkward time right now. I'm constrained in what I can and cannot say."

"Our opinion is that this position is to represent everyone, not just industry," said Arlene Boyd, chairwoman of the Stillwater Protective Association, an affiliate of the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council, which has helped area tribes deal with coal-development issues.

"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," added Laura Ziemer, director of Trout Unlimited's Montana Water Project. "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 the industrial viewpoint, she can comfortably be an advocate for the public interest, as well.

"I'd like to bring a new dialog to the discussions on public land use," she said. "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."

Interior officials say they're unsure when Bush will forward Watson's nomination to Congress.