Stifling a voice for the air, land, and water

Centuries ago, an emperor devised a simple method for preserving his peace of mind. If a messenger arrived with bad news, the emperor had him executed. In a modern version of the above, President Reagan didn't kill one of his most important messengers: he just quietly disabled him.

The messenger is the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which serves as adviser to the President, counterpart to the Council of Economic Advisers and advocate for ecological sanity in the federal government. Mr. Reagan has proposed that the CEQ budget for fiscal 1982 be cut from $4 million to $1 million, its staff slashed from 49 to 16.

True, the council's messages are not always full of cheer. But there is hope in them nevertheless, if only our leaders would have the good sense to listen.

With the Department of Agriculture and the participation of 11 other federal agencies, CEQ recently initiated a national agricultural lands study that called attention to the nation's alarming loss of prime farmland. The council suggested how we can solve this problem through better land-use planning.

With the State Department and the involvement of many other agencies, CEQ initiated the Global 2000 Report, which showed that the United States and other nations must move quickly to change some current trends. Otherwise, the study concluded, our planet in the year 2000 will be more crowded and polluted, hungrier and poorer, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption. This is a somber message, but Global 2000 is not a gloom-and-doom report. It makes no apocalyptic predictions. It projects what is likely to happen ifm there are no changes in public policies. In a subsequent report, CEQ recommended steps to be taken to avert big trouble later.

"The goal is to further public discussion of these important issues," the council stated, "and to offer our best thinking to government leaders who will be developing US policy in the years ahead."

During its 11-year life, CEQ has focused national concern on such matters as forest management, coastal resources, energy conservation, acid rain, predator control, and the Alaska pipeline. The CEQ annual report serves as a national state-of-the-environment message, a valuable textbook for any student committed to environmental quality.

Above all, CEQ has been a champion of the long view, of investing in the future rather than going for the quick payoff today. Its concern is for the kind of world we leave our children, in contrast with the general preoccupation with this year's balance sheet or, in the case of most political leaders, getting reelected next time around.

During the Nixon and Ford years, CEQ promoted much of the legislation that made the 1970s our "environmental decade" -- laws to reclaim strip-mined land, prevent ocean dumping, protect wildlife, clean up air and water, control toxic substances, and reduce noise pollution. When questions arose about the costs involved ("it's a luxury we can't afford," some said, especially the big polluters), CEQ studied the economics of environmental protection and found that pollution controls did add to the inflation rate -- but only about one-tenth of 1 percent. The council discovered that the clean-up industry was creating more jobs than it eliminated, and offered attractive investment opportunities as well.

These are messages that the new administration apparently does not care for, and so the messenger will have a leg and two arms removed. Some $3 million will be saved -- at an incalculable loss to the federal government and the A merican people.

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