Few states have a bigger portion of their land under federal control than does Utah, with 75 percent of the Beehive State under U.S. stewardship.
Consequently, few states have a bigger interest than Utah does in who heads the U.S. Department of Interior and how this department is run. The department's decisions on water, land, and other natural resources can help make or break the states in the West.That's why Utahns will have to be pardoned if they pay less attention to the four other major posts that President-elect Bush filled Thursday and concentrate mostly on the selection of former New Mexico congressman Manuel Lujan Jr. as the next secretary of the Interior.
The other nominees, briefly, are: Dr. Louis Sullivan as Secretary of Health and Human Services; Samuel Skinner of Chicago as Secretary of Transportation; former Rep. Edwin Derwinski of Illinois to head the Veterans Department, newly elevated to Cabinet status; and William Reilly, president of the World Wildlife Fund, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
The new appointments are something of a mixed bag. While Lujan and Derwinski are veterans of Washington politics, Skinner, Sullivan, and Reilly represent the new faces that Bush had pledged to bring to his administration.
The positions that Bush filled on Thursday represent areas in which the president-elect has indicated he will differ from President Reagan. Throughout the election campaign, Bush said he would work to protect the environment and address many of the social issues that some of Reagan's critics charge have been overlooked in the past eight years.
When it comes to Lujan and Reilly, the president-elect can expect mixed reviews. Environmental activists are bound to be pleased with Reilly, who is involved in a group that has worked to forge an industry-environmental consensus.
The selection of Lujan, however, is dismaying many environmental groups, which remember his efforts to open up federal land for private development and for his support of former Interior Secretary James Watt, a highly controversial figure.
But it would be wrong not to give Lujan the benefit of a doubt. As Secretary of Interior, Lujan can do little that Bush doesn't let him. And Bush has promised to work for a balance between protecting the environment and sound economic development.
Besides, the public should keep in mind the example of Walter J. Hickel. After serving as governor of Alaska, Hickel came to the Interior Department with a reputation for favoring industrial development. But during his brief tenure as Secretary during the Nixon administration, he quickly became a vigorous and outspoken advocate of conservation.
Since Hickel's days, America's priorities have of necessity shifted somewhat. For example, no Secretary of Interior can do a responsible job without trying to make this nation less dependent on unreliable foreign sources of energy. But neither can Lujan or anyone else in the Interior post serve the public interest without also striving to minimize pollution and other environmental ravages.
There's seldom, if ever, a national consensus on exactly where and how this balance should be struck. But if Lujan does a conscientious job, he can count on at least a couple of things: Considerable static - and considerable satisfaction if he handles the task effectively.
Lujan can also count on westerners, who should wish him well, monitoring his work extremely closely, since what he does at Interior can have a major impact on the West's future.