When Mr. Reagan takes office on Jan. 20 -- say the prophets of doom -- the entire environmental movement will sink from sight as fast as Lake Peigneur into the salt domes of political history.
Don't bet on it. Although initially taken aback by the November returns, the conservation community has since caucused, strategized, critiqued its performance during the Carter years, and emerged eager to demonstrate that environmental concerns are not the exclusive stock of any political philosphy. Several factors bolster this renewed confidence:
* Environmental protection has become a very tough issue to be against. According to a recent survey conducted by Resources for the Future for the Council on Environmental Quality, 73 percent of all Americans consider themselves "environmentalists." In a Harris poll conducted in 1979, 69 percent of the repondents favoredm a major cutback in public spending but 57 percent opposedm such a major cutback if it meant cutting back on spending for environmental protection. As observed by Opinion Research Corporation, based on its 1977 poll of environmental issues: "All told, if public opinion is any guide , it would seem that . . . environmental protection no longer is the exclusive domain of a handful of professional social critics and environmental activists, but the continuing concern of the public as a whole."
* Conservationists are learning to translate diffuse public opinion into hard votes. The League of Conservation Voters lent financial or organizational support to candidates in Senate, House, and state races. While only one Senate candidate won (Gary Hart of Colorado), their candidates won 18 of 28 House races and three of five state races.
Where organizational efforts were intense, results were impressive. Bob Edgard (D) of Pennsylvania quadrupled his 1978 margin of victory in a 70 percent Republican district. Even in a losing effort, Sen. John Culver (D) of Iowa won the four cities in which conservationists canvassed. Conclusion: conservationists have a weapon in their campaign arsenal that corporate political action committees cannot duplicate -- standing army of grassroots volunteers willing to stuff envelopes and ring doorbells for their candidates.
* A Look at the record reveals, with apologies to Leo Durocher, that half the lies they've been spreading about Ronald Reagan are false. His unfortunate hyperbole aside ("A tree is a tree. How many do you need?") Reagan had a defensible record on environmental issues as governor of California. He signed into law the toughest air and water pollution control acts in the country, as well as a "mini" Environmental Policy Act for the state. He stopped several controversial water projects, and a highway project into the sierras needed by Disney Enterprises to contruct a ski resort. He backed the efforts of the California Coastal Commission to protect miles of beachfront from high-rises, and he created a Solid Waste Management Board to regulate disposal of industrial and nuclear wastes. His agencies fought to protect waterfowl habitat in northern California and added 145,000 acres to the state park system.
While many of these efforts were the result of the emerging public concern for the environment that swept the nation during the early 1970s, Reagan did not apply the gubernatorial veto to these efforts as he did to 994 other pieces of proposed legislation that crossed his desk.
* Conservative political philosophy meshes quite well with the conservation theory of resource management. The conservative determination to "get the government of our backs" dovetails nicely with efforts of conservationists to end government protection of regulated industries, such as the transportation and utility industries, that have dominated the agencies charged with their supervision and promoted inefficient use of these very necessary services. "Cut taxes," another conservative rally cry, will require an end to government pork -- highways, water projects, marinas, etc. -- that serve only a local constituency at the expense of the national treasury. The conservative move to keep government programs at the state and local levels can also be used to promote accountability -- more public participation in decisions by people who have to look us in the eye rather than simply hit us in the pocketbook.
Silver linings and stiff upper lips aside, conservationists are ready to meet the new administration and the conservative 97th Congress on equal ground. Congressional concern for the long-term protection of our natural resources base runs deep, as is attested to by the recent enactment of the Alaska lands and "Superfund" toxic waste bills by a lame-duck Congress freed from pre-election posturing. This is not the sign of a movement in decline, but rather a movement applying the lessons of the past to the problems of the future.
Wary, yes. Desperate, hardly. The identity between the long-term strategic interests of the United States and long-term protection of our natural resources base is now well established. Conservation is a concept of resource management that elevates efficiency and long-term productivity over waste and short- term gain. It is not a "cause" to be exploited by any one political party.
Lingering apprehension over the shift in administrations springs largely from an unfamiliarity with the new players and the unaddressed need to fit old conservation wine into new Republican bottles.
Mr. Reagan, welcome!