Seldom, if ever, since Rachel Carson touched off the environmental movement in the '60s with her book ''Silent Spring'' has the public debate over the nation's environmental policies been as bitter and as polarized as it is today.
Since the Reagan administration came to power, the federal government's relationship with the nation's environmental leaders has deteriorated steadily. Interior Secretary James Watt and environmental spokesmen have been waging a series of pitched verbal duels over the proper balance between development and conservation on the nation's public lands. These confrontations have turned increasingly personal and vindictive.
Meanwhile, over at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Reagan appointee Anne Gorsuch has been quietly engineering major cutbacks which have led to repeated charges that she is bent on gutting the agency charged with administering the nation's potpourri of environmental laws.
Looking at the nation's newspapers and magazines one could easily conclude that environmental matters have never been in greater chaos. Yet that conclusion is not fully justified. Amid the rhetorical storm, it's easy to loose sight of a fact agreed upon by both sides: differences in the positions held by various factions on environmental issues have narrowed considerably since the early 1970 s. The current war of words can also blur the salient point that efforts to deal with these complex issues have been proceeding at a number of different levels, not just in the political trenches in the nation's capital.
''There has been a mellowing on the environmental side and an educational process on the industry side,'' observes Frank Murray of Georgetown University, who has been involved in bridge-building efforts between the two groups. Corporate executives who tended to discount the environmental movement as a socialist plot have largely faded from the scene. Today's corporate leaders generally acknowledge the legitimacy of environmental concerns, although they may bridle at attendant regulations and restrictions. Likewise, second-generation environmental leaders have become more realistic in their demands and recognize that economic factors must be taken into account.
''The separation of opinion between industry and the environmental community is much less today than it was in the 1970s,'' concurs longtime environmental advocate Bill Butler, vice-president of the National Audubon Society.
This gradual narrowing of differences over the years has fed a growing and, until recently, an increasingly fruitful exploration of nonconfrontational methods of resolving environmental differences. However, these efforts have evolved in semisecrecy because the harsh glare of the public limelight makes the always delicate process of consensus building even more difficult. As a result, gains have generally gone unrecognized.
Under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, these meetings between industrialists and environmentalists were frequently held under administration auspices. In its first year and a half, the Reagan administration has chosen not to continue this tradition. In fact, Watt went so far as to order Interior employees not to fraternize with environmentalists. But there have been some encouraging signs recently that the administration is showing a new interest in non-adversarial methods of environmental problem solving. And, although threatened by the supercharged political atmosphere, interest in these efforts on the part of both environmentalists and industry representatives appears still to be strong.
The Conservation Foundation has been a leader in these bridge-building efforts. ''So far it hasn't become harder,'' says its president, William K. Reilly. As evidence, he cites a number of positions that groups of industrialists and environmentalists working with the foundation have agreed upon in the past year and a half. These include a redefinition of low level radioactive wastes which may simplify disposal and agreement that deregulation of energy prices is in the public interest.
''When the Reagan administration came in, we were worried that our corporate participants might no longer be interested in participating, so we conducted an informal poll,'' says Reilly. ''We found our concern was unfounded. As one prominent official of a major corporation put it, 'We read the polls (which show strong public support for environmental regulations). We know environmentalists have access to the courts. After Reagan is gone we will still have these problems, which don't lend themselves to ideological solutions. We still need the dialogue.' ''
Alan McGowan of the Scientists Institute for Public Information (SIPI) shares this view: ''My impression is that the basic desire is still there, despite a lot of rhetoric from the administration and industry leaders in general terms. When specific issues come up, and push comes to shove, they are willing to negotiate.''
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however.
''There is more of an adversarial relationship today and the basic reason is economics,'' says John Corcoran, who once ran the Consolidated Coal Company and now practices law in Pittsburgh. While industrialists are concerned about environmental issues and know protection measures should be taken, in current conditions they're not about to spend money unless forced, he elaborates.
''It's much easier to get along with people when you're making money,'' he adds wryly.
Butler of the Audubon Society is another dissenter: ''Sad to say, there has been a backsliding under the Reagan administration. Companies have found that they have less need to participate in consensus-building activities and environmentalists have been treated so crudely and roughly that they feel any participation is a concession of weakness.''
While allowing that activity at the Conservation Foundation and SIPI, among others, continues, the Audubon vice-president characterizes these efforts as largely academic. When it comes to political power brokering, he says, ''the auto industry's not willing to negotiate on relaxation of the Clean Air Act . . . the utilities are not saying, 'Let's sit down and reason together,' they're saying, 'We're going to roll you!' ''
"Industry's willingness to negotiate is in direct proportion to the perceived strength of the environmental movement,'' Butler continues. ''Recent administration efforts to extend us an olive 'leaf' are purely cosmetic, but they happened. It is because of the perception that Congress is beginning to pay more attention to the polls,'' the environmentalist argues.
He and many of his peers maintain that they almost, but not quite, achieved political parity with powerful industry lobbyists during the Carter administration. Environmental activists were given a number of key administration posts. Because of this, they say, they were able to negotiate with industrialists as equals. Now they consider themselves locked out of the decisionmaking process.
Not surprisingly, industry representatives see the situation as exactly the opposite. ''What's happened with the Reagan administration is that now we have the ability to present our position. In the past, we weren't given the opportunity, or, if we were, it was pro forma,'' objects Bob Bonczek, director of environmental affairs with the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. ''There is a balance now that there wasn't then.''
Although he considers bridge-building efforts to be relatively new, and reports a certain amount of standoffishness within industry circles, Bonczek says the giant chemical manufacturer considers them to be very important: ''Our traditional, adversarial process works, but it is inefficient at times. Du Pont is not interested in filling the courts with lawsuits or getting more laws through Congress, but in solving these problems.''
Jerry Decker, a vice-president with the Kaiser Corporation, was one of the prime movers of the coal policy project, one of the earliest independent efforts to find common ground between environmentalists and industry. He considers the time spent working on that project one of the most rewarding periods of his life.
Decker and others were right in the middle of the effort to resolve some of the environmental issues standing in the way of increased use of domestic coal when the Carter administration came to power.
''I strongly recommended a number of the environmentalists who were working with us for positions in the administration,'' recalls Decker. ''None of them were choosen. Later I found out it was because they were cooperating with industry. Now, with the Reagan administration, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.''
He and a number of others with industry backgrounds who have been active in consensus-building activities acknowledge that the pendulum has swung past dead center in favor of industry. But they also see signs that the administration's hard-nosed attitude toward environmentalists is moderating.
''What's happened with the Reagan administration is not terribly different from what happens with every new administration,'' Professor Murray of Georgetown observes: They come in with a sense of mandate. They think they can change the world. The people are new, ''full of oats and ready to take everyone on.'' By the second year, he says, they have broken their teeth on the issues and begin to realize that they can't go it alone. But in the process, he contiues, the Reagan administration has acquired a problem: its anti-environmental image.
The Georgetown scholar says he believes that the current polarization makes it unlikely that reaching agreements on national policy issues will be effective at the moment. He sees the current thrust of these efforts as local and regional.
An ongoing effort of the latter type is the Western Environmental Forest Group, composed of Western environmentalists and forestry industry representatives. ''The situation in Washington, D.C., has had no measurable impact on our efforts,'' insists group member Jack Larsen, who represents the Weyerhaeuser Company. ''Both sides see it as a purely rhetorical battle between the administration and environmental leaders.''
The Center for Environmental Problem Solving (ROMCOE)why is it called ROMCOE? is one of the nation's pioneers in environmental mediation. They recently negotiated an agreement between Colorado's oil and gas industry and environmentalists over the thorny issue of advance notification of exploration activities within Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas. Recently ROMCOE's director, John Kennedy, returned from a two-week stint in the nation's capital.
''We go back to Washington once a year,'' Kennedy reports. ''Up to now, our reception has generally been cordial, but not interested. This year we were staggered by the amount of interest in conflict management we encountered.'' Senior government officials, industry trade associations, and environmental groups all exhibited an unprecedented interest in ROMCOE's area of expertise, he says, adding, ''I don't think they could all be pulling our leg.''
''While Jim Watt is flailing his arms around, calling people socialists, on the one hand, and while Cecil Andrus (the previous Secretary of the Interior) and Russ Peterson (president of National Audubon) are indicting Watt, there are a lot of people who have problems they need to solve,'' Kennedy points out.
While the Reagan administration may be moderating its stance toward environmentalists and developing an appreciation for non-adversarial approaches to environmental problem solving, it has already taken a series of actions which many consider extremely detrimental to the nation's efforts to upgrade and protect the environment. Especially harmful, say critics, are major cutbacks in environmental research. EPA's estimated 1983 research budget of $216 million represents a 40 percent reduction from 1981, as compared with an overall cutback in federal nondefense research and development of just 2 percent.
Kennedy brands it ''a desperately dangerous situation.''
The reduction in environmental science, Professor Murray agrees, ''makes consensus building more difficult. The best way to diffuse emotional responses is to march down the factual road. The more information you have, the more likely you are to get people to agree on a description of the problem and to begin addressing it with a problem-solving mentality. These cutbacks are pennywise, pound foolish.''
Not only does lack of hard information on environmental issues tend to heighten polarization and confrontation, but today's environmental issues, like acid rain, are more complex and subtle than those of a decade ago, and so require more, not less, scientific effort to understand and address, experts point out.
''I think the dialogues continue, and continue to be taken seriously by everyone involved,''says the Conservation Foundation's Reilly. ''But I'm not very encouraged because the polarized environment tends to lead to simplistic approaches.'' Because of its provocative approach, he says, the administration missed a ''golden opportunity'' to integrate environmental and economic policy. This would have allowed growth with protection and is ''what I think the public wants,'' he adds.
''Industrialists have a lot to learn from environmentalists. And (environmentalists) can learn a lot from us,'' asserts lawyer and former coal company executive Corcoran.