ASHLAND, ORE. — AMONG those dancing most happily at President Clinton's inaugural parties were environmental activists. They had worked hard for the Clinton-Gore ticket, and it was time to celebrate after what they considered to be 12 years in the political wilderness.
But punch bowls were barely drained before they began pressuring the administration. Even before Mr. Clinton's swearing in, some were writing lists of things they want done to reduce environmental degradation and protect natural resources - many involve spending more money and butting heads with other special interests.
The political heat on environmental issues is coming from other quarters as well. Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that is sure to be controversial, including bills that would reduce subsidies to major resource industries such as mining, ranching, and timber. And within federal agencies, there is a growing reform movement that is striving to emphasize environmental protection over resource extraction.
Four years ago, government timber-sale planner Jeff DeBonis started the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an Oregon-based group that now claims some 10,000 members. Many of them speak out against what they call the National Forest Service's overemphasis on cutting down trees at the expense of the forest ecology.
Now, Mr. DeBonis is starting a broader group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "Already, employees at the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bureau of Reclamation [which oversee most environmental regulation and hundreds of millions of acres of federal land] are starting to organize employees for environmental ethics under the PEER banner," he says. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy
will have to deal with this reform movement.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been quick to file environmental-protection bills in the new Congress. Among these is legislation that would make hard-rock miners pay royalties for minerals extracted from federal land, prevent their gaining title to such land (as is now possible for as little as $2.50 an acre), and require reclamation after mining is finished. Rep. George Miller (D) of California, House Natural Resources Committee chairman, also is targeting other public-land subsidies that critics say c ost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Other proposed legislation would create three new national parks in the California desert, designate as wilderness the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (thereby placing it out of bounds for oil drilling), and strengthen federal wetlands law to limit development.
Without waiting for formal legislation, major environmental groups are pushing wish lists in front of the administration. Some examples:
* Defenders of Wildlife announced the "top 10 wildlife-conservation decisions facing President Clinton." These include a stronger Endangered Species Act, more environmental protection under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park.
"No previous incoming president has been obliged to confront as many major wildlife-conservation decisions as now await President Clinton," said Rodger Schlickeisen, the group's president. "The way in which the new president reacts at these key decision points will clearly set the tenor of this administration's attitude toward wildlife concerns."
* The Sierra Club wants to change federal tax law to promote mass transit over auto travel, raise fees for cattle grazing on public lands, prohibit the export of raw logs from private lands, and create an investment tax credit for recycling.
* Greenpeace recommends halting nuclear-weapons testing, increasing the federal budget for endangered-species protection, buying up privately owned old-growth forests, banning all incineration of toxic waste, and ordering "the fastest-possible phaseout of the 110 existing US nuclear-power plants."
* In a 208-page "Earth Budget," Friends of the Earth calls for doubling federal spending on environment protection over the next four years.
* Next week, the Wilderness Society and 35 other groups will outline millions of acres of land they believe the federal government should buy to protect it from development.
WHILE many suggestions could be costly, environmentalists tout their job-creation potential and assert they could be offset by budget cuts elsewhere. The Sierra Club notes, for example, that increased funding for weatherizing low-income housing could reduce the $4 billion spent each year to subsidize low-income-household energy costs. Friends of the Earth would cut the "anti-environmental budget" - such things as nuclear weapons, unnecessary water projects, surplus crops irrigation, coastal flood insuran ce, and mortgage-interest deductions for second homes.
Says Jane Perkins, president of Friends of the Earth: "Our analysis shows that President Clinton and Congress can increase investment in the planet without enlarging the government or increasing the budget deficit."