Businessman sees new moderation in national debate on environment

Amid a shouting match between conservationists who want to preserve the environment and businessmen who want to develop its resources, a voice of moderation can be heard.

This is the view of businessman S. Bruce Smart of the Continental Group -- and he says that voice may be getting stronger.

The national debate on the environment is entering a more clear-eyed and evenhanded phase, says Mr. Smart. Chairman and chief executive officer of the nation's 65th largest corporation - a company with subsidiaries in forest products, energy, and container-making machinery -- Smart also sits on the board of the Nature Conservancy, a prominent Washington-based conservation organization.

While public attention has been riveted for the past year on the verbal jousts between Secretary of the Interior James Watt and those he terms ''environmental extremists,'' the business and environmentalist communities have made some peace.

Although the average businessman and average environmentalist may still regard each other as enemies, Mr. Smart says, there are several promising signs:

* The National Wildlife Federation has started seeking a ''corporate detente'' by asking businessmen for input on wildlife policy.

* Study teams on the National Coal Policy Project -- made up of environmentalists, industry representatives, and scholars -- have reached consensus on mining site development some 200 times.

* The Nature Conservancy, with roughly 80 of the nation's largest corporations on its membership rolls, has furthered its program of protecting natural habitats.

* The Institute for Resource Management, founded by Robert Redford to help business executives learn to plan with the environment in mind, is opening this fall.

The quality of debate has improved considerably in the last three years, Smart says. ''No responsible citizen -- certainly no environmentalist or businessman - can safely continue to be blindly committed to a single side of these great issues,'' he told an audience of Los Angeles businessmen.

The disputes between industrialists and conservationists, aggravated by publicity in the news media, brought the environmental debate to such a fever pitch that it became ''a shouting match,'' Smart says.

The public rivalry made it difficult to discuss with environmentalists some of the more unreasonable demands -- like bringing factory air pollution to zero-level -- that cost more than industry can afford, Smart says.

On the other hand, businessmen need to concede that the guiding hand of the marketplace ''doesn't always consider the impact of its actions on third parties or on future generations,'' he says. Problems that nature can't correct -- such as toxic wastes, destruction of agricultural land, and species extinction -- demand government control.

Smart says the discussion is ready for a change in tone and leadership. The leaders who first rally people to a cause are not the same mediators and makers of compromise who will solve the problems, he says.

The nation -- and it resources -- are ready, he says, for mediators.

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