Environmentalists already fear an era may be ending in Washington -- the halcyon days of their own political influence. One specific concern: the regulation of aerial sprays and poisons used to guard crops from natural plagues.
The Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief is now planning to review federal registration of pesticides, which, it says, appears to delay marketing of needed agricultural chemicals.
Groups like the National Audubon Society worry that Reagan administration policies on commercial toxins may seriously weaken regulations designed to protect consumers, workers, and wildlife -- regulations won during a period that began with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," and climaxed in the 1972 ban on DDT.
Other scientists, together with farmers and chemical manufacturers, say less government regulation will stimulate chemical research and use, improve, crop yields, and help consumers: They warn of problems ahead for the American standard of living if pests like Medflies, gypsy moths, and predator coyotes go unchecked because of government restrictions. They claim environmentalist concerns are not based on sound research.
Underlying the current debate, renewed by signs of shifting environmental policy in Washington, is an old question: How much of regulation is based on scientific data, and how much on political predilections?
Scientists in both groups respect the scientific method--but not each other's politics. In the recent Medfly controversy many environmentalists and proponents of pesticide use agreed that, based on research, malathion spraying was safe for Californians and consumrs, and was needed for orchards.
But, according to Maureen Hinkle, a National Audubon Society policy analyst, environmentalists disagreed with the US Department of Agriculture's threat to embargo California fruit, which she termed a heavy-handed move that "politicized" the issue of peticide use.
Gordon Edwards, a professor of general and medical entymology at San Jose State University, said environmentalists have "politicized" issues involving the use of chemical poisons -- at the expense of consumers. He claimed that bans on poisons like DDT were not based on good research, and that most pesticides are harmless when used at the proper levels. Such poor research, according to Mr. Edwards, alarmed the public, leading to too-strict regulation and communities unprepared for problems like the Medfly.
According to Ian Nisbet, a consultant on pesticides to Environmental Protection Agency, tests on the effects of poisons are often inconclusive, making regulatory policy dependent on the values of policymakers -- and the number of risks they are willing to take.
"The more sound and fury there is, the less science," he added, describing how value differences among scientists can blur debate.
Mr. Nisbet noted that government regulations have forced a slowdown in pesticide innovation because they require expensive testing: This can be seen as necessary to safeguard health, or as preventing research needed to keep up with new strains of pests.
Environmentalists see USDA action on the Medfly, which Mrs. Hinkle thinks could have been taken by individual states, as only one of many indications that the US is shifting its policy on toxins.
Foremost among these is John Todhunter, Mr. Reagan's appointee for assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dr. Todhunter previously served as scientific adviser to the New York-based Council on Science and Health, which has supported a lifting of EPA bans on DDT and 2,4,5-T -- a herbicide allegedly responsible for miscarriages of pregnant women in Oregon.
"What has happened is that most of us who live in the East have lost perspective on how we are vitally dependent on pesticides and herbicides," said Elizabeth Whelan, director of the council. "The only people who are really suffering are we consumers. I think the new administration is more oriented to that."
Dr. Todhunter would not comment on policy because his appointment has yet to be approved, but he asserted that "the key overriding concern, of course, is protection of the public." He added that he would seek to base regulation on actual scientific data.
This appointment isn't all that bothers environmentalists: Mrs. Hinkle claimed that reorganization of the EPA may limit restriction of toxic chemicals. The agency's central enforcement division will be split up: The pesticides and toxic substances office will now be responsible for its own enforcement. Todhunter said this will mean more efficiency. Environmentalists also note that most EPA research into alternatives to pesticides will be transferred to the US Department of Agriculture, traditionally less concerned with environmentalist approaches. In line with Reagan federalism, more responsibility for environmental policy will pass to the states.
Not only the EPA and the USDA figure in environmentalists fears: the Interior Department is revising its pesticide policy to make use of legal pesticides easier on federal lands.
Ronald Reagan implied during his election campaign that he would review the ban on the poison 1080, used to kill coyotes allegedly consuming Western herds, but which environmentalists claim also kills other wildlife unnecessarily. The EPA is holding administrative hearings on the ban.
Meanwhile, pesticide manufacturers continue lobbying Congress for revision of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act: They don't want the ingredients of their toxins to be put on public record.
Environmentalists see a fight ahead on issues they had considered won; their opponents are hopeful. Both groups seek understanding of how to best use chemicals to protect public health and prosperity.