Washington — Two environmental organizations here merged last week, capping a series of leadership and structural changes this year that have subtly changed the face of the environmental movement in the United States. The changes involve the nation's most established environmental groups. There is no certain link between all the moves; many have been dictated by unrelated factors, such as retirements and resignations. But the activity seems to underscore a growing realization among many environmentalists that confrontation is no longer the most productive approach to getting their message across. Moderation seems to be the emerging watchword.
Some of these recent changes reflect the swelling complexity of many environmental issues, such as groundwater pollution and acid rain, that lack a readily identifiable cause or effect. For example, last week the Conservation Foundation, a highly respected environmental research organization, merged with the World Wildlife Fund-US, the largest wildlife organization in the country. Leaders of the two groups say their respective programs will continue, but the merger will enable them to strengthen their r esearch and address critical conservation issues.
``We have different strengths,'' says Conservation Foundation president William K. Reilly. Mr. Reilly, who will be president of the new organization, says that the Conservation Foundation has strengths in social-science research, while the World Wildlife Fund provides expertise in the biological sciences. ``That kind of cooperation is becoming more crucial as the issues [we tackle] become more complex,'' he says.
In other groups the changes may reflect a desire to moderate the strident tone honed during the tenure of Interior Secretary James G. Watt. ``The style of the administration has changed and so, to a certain extent, have we,'' says Wilderness Society president William A. Turnage.
Some appointees to leadership posts in environmental groups have relatively conservative backgrounds that emphasize extensive administrative experience. The Sierra Club, founded by John Muir in 1892 and perhaps the most venerable environmental group in the US, recently chose its first new executive director in 16 years. The new chief, Douglas P. Wheeler, was president of the American Farmland Trust and an assistant secretary of the interior in the Ford and Reagan administrations.
The National Audubon Society, founded in 1901, recently appointed Peter A. A. Berle as president. Among Mr. Berle's credentials: lawyer, former New York state assemblyman from Manhattan, and former commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Perhaps an indication of the wave of the future in environmental groups may lie in Charleston, W.Va. Former antagonists from industry, government, and the environmental movement have banned together there to form the Institute for Chemical Studies, which seeks to analyze the environmental problems chemical plants impose on communities, and then fashion solutions.
``I think it has to be an answer,'' says former Environmental Protection Agency head William D. Ruckelshaus of the Institute's approach. ``There is a realization among all sides of the environmental debate that without cooperation, there will be gridlock.''