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Harold Coolidge, CONVERSATIONIST

By Emilie Tavel LivezeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 1981



Beverly, Mass.

Harold Jefferson Coolidge is a bull elephant of the global conservation movement. His organizational genius initiated some of the leading nongovernmental international organizations for preserving wildlife -- shaping the world effort to save animals and their habitats.

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Ask this Harvard-trained zoologist, as we did during an interview at his solar-heated home in Beverly, Mass., where the cause of conservation stands today, and he unburdens his most immediate concern: what is happening in Washington.

He views with utter disbelief and dismay Reagan administration proposals which are, he believes, unraveling the fabric of the movement he has spent 50 years constructing --arrangements for protecting the environment which he had hoped were established for all time. Among them:

* Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt's stated intention to give park concessionaires, who operate hotels, restaurants, and shops in US national parks , a greater role in managing the parks. "Terrible, crazy stuff," Mr. Coolidge says.

* The secretary's consideration of a plan to permit mining in the wilderness system.

"We know from past experience that when these things happen you lose control. It is bad for the country. It destroys a resource which should be saved for the benefit of future generations. I don't say that some of [the public lands] should not be opened up. But the best thing is to have federal control of them and not turn them over to exploitation. . . .

"I think what Mr. Watt is going to realize," he continues, "is that when he upsets things that have been established, like the sacredness of the national parks, he will find there is quite an upwelling of antagonism against him. . . ."

* The drastic reduction of the Council on Environmental Quality. This last step is especially alarming to Mr. Coolidge. The CEQ, a tiny, three-man Cabinet-level body set up in 1970 by President Nixon under provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, was established to advise the president on environmental issues and to oversee compliance of federal agencies with that law.

After deciding not to abolish the council altogether, President Reagan has fired all but a couple of CEQ's professional staff members, slashed its staff from 50 to 16, and cut its fiscal 1982 budget by 72 percent. The administration contends that its functions can be carried out by other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. But spokesmen for CEQ have been quoted as saying that in its truncated condition there is no way it can carry out all its mandated responsibilities.

In terms of conservation, Mr. Coolidge sums up, "The dreadful thing is that we [in the United States] have got off the track."

The problem is that everybody believes that conservation comes at the expense of development. "But that is not the case," he stresses.

From the conservationists' point of view, the CEQ cutbacks by the Reagan administration could hardly come at a more inappropriate time. Just last spring , the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) launched a 36-nation "World Conservation Strategy." "The World Strategy shows that you can have both the right kind of development and conservation of basic animal and plant life perfectly well. It is just a question of working out the best way to develop such an amalgam."

As a member of the American delegation to the 1948 Fontainebleau Conference in France, Mr. Coolidge helped found IUCN, whose headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland. A past president, he is now honorary president, a life post.

"This union has been going for 32 years," he says. "It is the most effective and important nongovernmental organization in this whole field of the environment and conservation of species and habitats."