WASHINGTON -- James Cason, nominated to one of the government's top environmental jobs, denied Wednesday that he suppressed an unfavorable report or used his influence against federal protection of the spotted owl.
The charges constitute one of the major objections by conservation and environmental groups to President Bush's choice of Cason to be the assistant agriculture secretary who oversees the Soil Conservation Service and the 191 million-acre national forest system.
During a confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Cason, a high-ranking Interior Department official, promised to be a fair-minded executive with an open-door policy.
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed his reservations about Cason by referring to President Reagan's controversial interior chief, saying, 'Frankly, we do not need someone who is a James Watt clone in this position.'
Critics accuse Cason of being 'pro-exploitation' and a poor steward of public lands. They also say he delayed the Forest Service from issuing its own oil and gas leasing regulations and allowed oil shale land to be sold for a pittance.
Cason defended his role in events in May 1986 that stopped work on a Bureau of Land Management study that concluded that, within a few years, logging would endanger survival of the spotted owl. He said his concern was over poor workmanship and that he was not trying to suppress the report but wanted it to be 'cleaned up.'
Participants at a May 20, 1986, briefing have privately told senators that copies of the report were confiscated. One quoted Cason as saying, 'You're not going to have that report for anything.'
'An argument can be made ... that you were given a draft report with crucial implications. You chose to lock that away, suppress that report,' Leahy said.
'That's not what happened,' Cason responded, while acknowledging 'that conclusion can be drawn.'
Cason said work by the BLM task force was held up out of a belief that two other agencies were conducting more comprehensive studies of the owl. Leahy questioned whether the task force was revived when news stories began circulating about the contentious May briefing.
The nominee told Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., that he did not interfere with the Interior Department's handling of a proposal to list the owl as an endangered species. A top department official has said Cason strongly opposed federal protection.
'I was concerned about the process but it (the decision to investigate the owl) was not over my objection,' Cason said.
Also during the hearing, Cason defended the department's decision to allow the sale of 17,000 acres of oil shale land for $42,000. Soon afterward, the land was sold to oil companies for $37 million.
'The issue that's there is, that's what the law told us to do,' Cason said.
'Something is radically wrong' with allowing that kind of sale, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. 'I am troubled by that.'
In response to questions, Cason said the government should move away from below-cost sales of timber from national forests. He later said consideration also had to be given to the impact sales have on local communities.