ENVIRONMENTALISTS have been searching hard to find a silver lining in a toxic cloud of antienvironment sentiment they see descending on Capitol Hill.
The 104th Congress, convening in January, won't advertise itself as ``anti-environment,'' of course. Polls show most Americans want continued progress on environmental issues. But there will be lots of talk of ``wise use'' of natural resources (i.e., less protection) and ``property rights'' (i.e., ``It's my land; if environmental regulations lower its value, pay me the difference'').
Environmental groups are in part victims of their own success. The public feels solid progress has been made, and no Exxon Valdez disaster has occurred lately. And the perception of a shaky economy has made the argument that jobs are more important than spotted owls and snail darters sound reasonable.
Still, it's no time for environmentalists to despair. When the 25th anniversary of Earth Day rolls around next spring, action on several fronts could be under way. Some possible strategies:
Go with the flow: Congress will be in a cost-cutting mood. Advocate cuts in programs and tax breaks that harm the environment. A coalition led by Friends of the Earth has begun a ``green scissors'' campaign and identified $6 billion in cuts in government subsidies for irrigation, mining, logging, and ranching on public lands.
Return to the grass roots: To some Americans, environmental organizations have become just another big Washington lobby. With less legislation likely to pass in Congress, environmentalists have an opportunity to reestablish local, grass-roots work. This dovetails with the current sentiment to move government closer to the people where practical solutions - taking into account local conditions - can be found.
Partner with businesses: Advocate flexible federal regulations that offer incentives and choices to business, like the acid-rain reduction program that gives industry options for how to reduce air pollution. The Environmental Defense Fund is a leader in working with industry to reduce pollution during manufacturing. It's not jobs vs. the environment; some of the states with the best environmental records have the healthiest economies.
The children shall lead them: Environmental activism on college campuses remains strong. And a love-the-Earth ethic has been taught for a generation in schools. If baby boomers don't keep the environment high on their lists of priorities, their children will.