Conservatives, too, like clean air

President Reagan has been able to mow down or butter up the opposition on many of his economic goals. But his efforts to weaken environmental safeguards are running into a hardier breed. Perhaps it is hardier because it is more of a hybrid, with conservative roots as well as liberal sap (no offense, anybody).

At any rate the administration met two congressional setbacks this week: A House committee chose the stronger alternative for a measure controlling airborne pollutants. The full House rejected an amendment prohibiting states from establishing controls on agricultural chemicals stronger than national standards.

These are welcome signs of resistance when Interior Secretary Watt appears to be riding high with administrative inroads on environmental protection -- and when Congress itself has appeared ready to undercut the Clean Air Act with pullback provisions.

Somehow it was appropriate for all this to be happening when deep-dyed conservative columnist George Will was illustrating that environmental protection is not the liberal monopoly Mr. Watt sometimes implies. In a column called ''A Word for the Wilderness'' (or maybe Willderness), Mr. Will challenges the stigmatizing of environmentalism as an ''elitist'' cause. ''It is odd to say that removing lead from gasoline or from paint in tenements concerns Palm Beach more than Baltimore, or that regulating chemical wastes benefits only one class,'' he notes.

Of course. So will it be strange if Mr. Reagan does not get the message, especially now that such an early and firm supporter as Mr. Will delivers it. Americans want a sound economy, but they want a sound environment, too.

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