Wrong signal on the environment

Like nearly three-quarters of his fellow citizens, as measured in a recent survey, President Reagan considers himself an "environmentalist." He cites support for strong clean air and water laws during his governorship of California. Now he seems to be sending a contrary signal. He has fired all but one of the professional staffers and most of the other employees of the federal government's key environmental watchdog agency, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). And he proposes to cut its fiscal 1982 budget by 72 percent (from $4 million to $1.04 million). If Mr. Reagan wishes to keep his environmentalist credentials, he will have to show that the intention and result are to maintain CEQ's thrust under budgetary restraint rather than to undermine its usefulness.

As it is, such a severe cutback would raise doubts about CEQ's ability to carry out its broad mandate to oversee NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act passed during the Nixon administration. It was set up as a presidential council, separate from the differing interests of other agencies, to be free to guide, persuade, or take other action in behalf of efficient achievement of the law's environmental goals. Ironically, CEQ has long been charged with the "streamlining" of the NEPA process which the Reagan team is calling for. It has already put in place such measures as speeding environmental impact statements: by imposing time limits, reducing lengths, and brining all concerned agencies together early on.

The challenge it now faces is how to keep up the work on a budget for a total staff of 16, including the three council members. The present staff of 45 permanent and temporary employees (not including council members) contaipns 27 professional specialists, some of them going back to Republican administrations. Their work with other agencies made the CEQ effective. And the CEQ's required reports to the president have been uniquely thorough gatherings of information on environmental problems and solutions.

The President's expected nominee as CEQ chairman, A. Alan Hill, has said what everyone assumes, that future reports would not be as comprehensive. But he has given assurances that CEQ will be able to carry on its statutory function.

There is encouragement in Mr. Hill's environmental record in California and closeness to top presidential aide Meese. The CEQ cuts will be less of a handicap if it can get White House backing to stand up to Cabinet departments and other agencies in upho lding environmental law.

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