Washington — All the smoke hasn't cleared from the rancorous budget battle in Washington, but, on the whole, environmentalists are breathing a bit easier these days. Despite the tough rhetoric of Interior Secretary James G. Watt and general pro-development Reagan administration stand, programs to expand parkland, conserve energy, and protect natural resources are faring better than their supporters earlier had hoped. Congress may be capitulating to the white House on most matters of federal finance and policy, but not on the environment.
In the recent budget reconciliating process, for example, Congress voted to spend much more money on the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund than the administration wanted. It rejected a Wh ite house bid to rescind such funds this year, which means that expansion of protected areas along the Appalachian Trail, in California's Santa Monica Mountains, and in the Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio (among other places) will continue as planned.
Lawmakers also rejected an administration "substitute" measure that would have reduced spending for such energy conservation measure as weatherization of homes for elderly people. Some frost-belt Republicans (those from the northeast and Midwest) broke ranks with the White House to join Democrats here.
The full House also adopted the Democratic version of mass-transit funding, which provides more than Republicans were seeking.
Environmental lobbyists are justifiably wary of Washington's new and somewhat breathtaking way of fashioning a budget; nonetheless, thus far the are pleased.
"Who knows what [legislation] is lurking that may have done violence to the things we care about," says John McComb of the Sierra Club. "But compared to a lot of other social programs, we came out relatively unscathed."
Environmentalists have won tentative but significant victories on historic preservation for cities, water research programs, strip-mining enforcement, and coastal protection. California Republicans -- placing that concerns of their constituents above White House desires -- have joined the move to restrict offshore oil drilling along the Pacific Coast.
"On reconciliation and on House appropriations, we've fared quite well," said Destry Jarvis of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
The house of Representatives has refused to consider an administration-sponsored measure than would direct Land and Water conservation Fund money to be used for repair and maintenance rather than new land acquisition. Instead, the House Appropriations Committee has approved $155 million for such acquisition in 1982. The Republican-dominated Senate (judging by the recommendations of key committee chairmen) appears inclined to follow the House lead in bucking the administration on new parkland acquisition.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont says a "fine tuning" of the Clean Air Act -- not the massive rewrite the White House apparently wants -- is in order. The house seems even less disposed to weakening air-pollution laws to the extent the administration is urging.
Environmentalists and their many friends on Capitol Hill thus are resisting the confrontational tactics of Interior Secretary Watt, a man who relishes meeting his opponents headon. But they also privately are grateful that they have an obvious and (in their view) somewhat grim man on whom to focus their efforts.
"to be perfectly candid, we look upon Watt as an asset," says an environmental leader whose group is enjoying a membership and fund-raising boom.
"Our impact and our effect are going to be less visible . . . more defensive, " says the Sierra Club's John McComb. "But I'm quite confident that our ability to impact public policy has not diminished."
Judging by recent congressional a ction, that assessment appears correct.