Estes Park, Colo. — The rhetoric was surprisingly militant. After all, it was a meeting of the National Audubon Society, not the more-activist Sierra Club or the Friends of the Earth. In the 1960s and '70s, the binocular-carrying birders of Audubon have comprised one of the quieter, more conservative environmental groups.
No longer, it would appear.
"The Reagan administration is attempting a coup -- attempting through administrative actions to circumvent the the environmental laws of the land, and to turn our natural resources over to the exploiters -- to the modern-day plume hunters and buffalo hunters. We must stop them," Audubon president Russell W. Peterson told the faithful assembled here on the mountainous verge of Rocky Mountain National Park over the Fourth of July weekend.
"Don't be misled by some people pleading for our loyalty to President Reagan's budget- cutting. This is part of the smokescreen under which the coup is being carried out. We have no objection to environmental agencies being included in the approximately 5 percent cut from the Carter budget, but we do object to a cut 14 times as much," Mr. Peterson elaborated.
Many environmental leaders like Peterson are convinced that the administration's anti- environmental statements, unfavorable appointments to key posts, and proposals to weaken environmental laws show that Mr. Reagan, despite his claims to be an environmentalist, has declared all-out war on the environmental movement.
"Environmental concerns have whipped themselves up to an hysterical degree on very little evidence. The reason for this cynical manipulation is to raise money," countered John B. Crowell Jr., assistant secretary for natural resources and environment of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), who presented the administration's case to the largely hostile Audubon audience. Peterson later rejected the fund-raising claim as a "gross insult."
The Reagan administration is not turning its back on the environment, Mr. Crowell told the Audubon delegates. Nonetheless, one of the first acts of Crowell, an ex-Audubon member and former timber company lawyer, as assistant secretary was to disband the USDA's four-man environmental office, an action that appeared to damage his credibility with the assembled environmentalists.
Stressing the nation's financial difficulties, Crowell defended Interior Secretary James G. Watt's proposal not to purchase new parklands. He touted the virtues of managing public lands under the "multiple use" concept and asserted that although the administration has no intention of reclassifying any of the nation's 95.4 million acres of wilderness, it would be extremely careful in considering new additions.
Crowell also said that an "old growth component" would be maintained in the national forests. Old growth, areas of aging trees, is a controversial issue. Preservationists like old- growth areas because they are more natural and support some forms of wildlife that younger and managed forests do not. Timber interests, on the other hand, see old growth as wasting a valuable resource because older trees become more susceptible to pests and disease. Crowell estimated that the amount of wood logged from the national forests could be doubled without environmental damage, an assertion that alarms conservationists.
"The difference between us is a matter of degree, rather than kind," Crowell maintained.
Not many of the Audubon delegates appeared convinced of this fact, however, Charles Callison, head of the Public Land Institute, received a standing ovation for raking Crowell and Watt over the coals.
"Mr. Crowell, you will not turn our national forests into tree farms. The public will not let you," Mr. Callison said.
The Audubon members consider their new militance a necessary reaction to actions taken by the Reagan administration. Having a clear enemy like Secretary Watt does seem to be a boon for the movement. Sierra Club memberships have grown to 225,000 from 175,000 in the past few months, and National Audubon received eight times as much money this year as last from their mailing.
"The plume hunters in high public office have asked for a fight, a nd, by golly, they'll get one, Peterson declared.