The Environmental Front

A YEAR-LONG assault on federal environmental policy is nearing a climax. Bills to slash EPA funding, roll back regulatory oversight, and open public resources to private exploitation are on the verge of final action. And the presidential veto pen is poised.

But through all the alarm and furor, a key question arises: Even if much of the Republican legislation is enacted, will the environmental gains of the last three decades be reversed?

In the crucial areas of clean water and clean air, the national commitment is unshaken, for one bedrock reason: Though some members of Congress may be willing to significantly loosen clean-water rules, for instance, the public is not with them. Americans as a whole cherish environmental gains made over recent decades. Swimmable rivers and clearer skies make people feel better about their lives and communities.

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On the other hand, specific laws can run head-on into local cultures and economies. The Endangered Species Act is a case in point. It has become the favorite target of Westerners whose livelihoods in timber, mining, or ranching are perceived to be as threatened as any owl.

But current moves to force the ESA into dormancy are ill advised. Biodiversity may sound like a scientific nicety, but it, like clean air or water, is integral to a healthy environment. Some retuning of the act is needed, to balance costs and benefits in any given situation. But efforts like that reportedly coming from Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, which would remove even the bald eagle from the endangered list, go too far.

Another example: Superfund reauthorization to continue the process of cleaning up major toxic waste sites around the US. Legislation now before Congress would rejuggle the funding mechanism whereby past polluters are required to pay for much of the clean-up. Critics of that system have a point: forcing businesses to pay when their past dumping had been legal is questionable. Some adjustments, particularly for smaller businesses with few resources, are needed. But Superfund must be sustained. Despite false starts and jumbled priorities, toxic sites are being successfully cleaned up. The program should not be derailed now because of funding squabbles.

Wetlands protection is another area where antiregulation lawmakers have staged a raid. Here, too, we'd agree with a measure of cost-benefit thinking. But the goal of safeguarding a shrinking resource that disperses floods, provides critical habitat, and helps purify water shouldn't be lost.

Many lawmakers - including a corps of conservation-minded Republicans - understand the public's allegiance to environmental protection. They may be able to strike a reasonable balance in the current legislation. If that doesn't happen, the president's veto and future congresses will have to weigh in on nature's side.

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