WHEN the returns from the presidential election came in, environmentalists around the country cheered.
Bill Clinton's administration "will be a complete turnaround from the environmental policies of the last 12 years," declared Robert F. Kennedy Jr., director of the environmental law clinic at Pace University Law School. Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Interior Committee, pronounced himself "very excited" at the "new strength" given to environmental issues. "Great news," said Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Lucy Blake, executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters, called the election of Clinton and Al Gore "a turning point in the race to save the planet."
On Capitol Hill, the results presented a mixed picture for those pushing for stronger environmental legislation. New Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold from Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer from California are much "greener" than their opponents would have been. But the losses of Democratic House incumbents Les AuCoin of Oregon, James Jontz of Indiana, Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania, and Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota are bad news for environmentalists.
The defeat of many environmental ballot measures also was sobering to "enviros," as they're called. Recycling in Massachusetts and North Dakota, toxics labeling in Ohio, bond measures for waste-water treatment and park rehabilitation in New Mexico, nuclear-power shutdown and an end to salmon gill-netting on the Columbia River in Oregon - all were presented by opponents as either increasing the tax burden or costing jobs, and all were rejected.
"All these environmental losses at the ballot box are essentially pocketbook votes," observed a Wall Street Journal editorial. "The Clinton-Gore administration might save the `save the planet' stuff until it has the economy back in regular orbit."
Throughout the campaign, Clinton, and especially Gore, rejected what they said was this "false choice" between environmental protection and economic rejuvenation. But many Americans - especially in resource-rich areas like the Pacific Northwest or heavy manufacturing states where industrial pollution is a problem - are concerned that trade-offs will have to be made.
For the moment, at least, most seem willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt: Both Oregon and Michigan went for the Democratic ticket. A cynic might say this is because Clinton skillfully finessed the issues during the campaign. He promised a "timber summit" to bring all parties together on old-growth forests where loggers and the friends of spotted owls have been battling it out for years. He wants more fuel-efficient autos, but said he wouldn't insist on legislation forcing Detroit to produce t hem.
In a speech at Philadelphia's Drexel University last April, Clinton made a number of more specific promises regarding the environment and energy. Supporters and opponents will be watching closely to see whether he delivers.
Among these pre-election promises: signing the Earth Summit's biodiversity treaty and committing the United States to "targets and timetables" on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, both of which George Bush rejected; restoring US funding for United Nations population-control measures and allowing foreign aid to support Planned Parenthood; designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness and therefore out of bounds for oil exploration; boosting funding for development of renewable energy sour ces; increasing reliance on natural gas, starting with an executive order to purchase natural gas-powered vehicles for the federal-government fleet; creating a system of "tradable credits" for solid waste; converting some military research and development funds to light rail; enacting revenue-neutral incentives that reward conservation and punish pollution; creating incentives for businesses and government agencies to recycle, and using federal purchasing power to increase markets for recycled materials.
These are some of the things to watch for in determining whether Bill Clinton makes a reality of George Bush's claim to be the "environmental president."