MANY environmentalists are growing increasingly impatient with compromise and dealmaking by what one Florida activist calls the ``comfortable old movement.'' During the past two decades, once-radical ideas about the value of wetlands and controlling urban growth have become mainstream environmental concerns. Environmentalists and their organizations, likewise, have moved into the mainstream.
But developments ranging from the recent oil-tanker spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound to thickening morning traffic in Sunbelt cities are stoking impatience with softline methods.
This is especially apparent in Florida, where the pressure of rapid population growth on a delicate ecosystem now brings a steady onslaught of environmental face-offs.
Critical of too much compromise, Joe Podgor, Dade County chairman of Friends of the Everglades, says: ``The old movement has decided that something is better than nothing too many times.''
Recently, hard-line environmentalists in Gainesville, Fla., were arrested after perching in trees as bulldozers moved toward them to clear for a high-density development.
This kind of radical action, typical of groups like Greenpeace, was more familiar in early environmentalism days in the early 1970s. This year in Gainesville, it worked. The county commission changed its decision on allowing the development.
Over the past few years, this type of hard-line environmentalism has reached a higher profile than ever in Florida.
``A natural evolution,'' says Tallahassee lawyer and environmentalist David Gluckman of the purists who see environmental causes in absolute, black-and-white terms. ``It's almost critical to keep the movement going.''
At the national level, Jeff Webb, international director of Friends of the Earth, says, ``We are getting more impatient.''
He was annoyed to watch the leaders of two major environmental organizations make conciliatory statements toward the Bush administration recently, without - in Mr. Webb's view - getting any deserving action from the White House. ``After the last eight years [of Reagan-led environmental policy], I don't think people are in much of a mood to give more ground.''
In Florida, the tension between compromise and confrontation over environmental issues emanates from a variety of environmental and neighborhood groups uncomfortable with the dealmaking of a few of the largest, most established groups.
With Lake Okeechobee - which feeds the Everglades and much of urban south Florida's water supply - on the brink of ecological death, the vast Everglades themselves unhealthy, the loss of wetlands slowed but continuing, and a number of popular local species on the endangered list, Florida environmentalists increasingly claim no room for compromise.
Those most often accused of compromising too soon, too easily, contend that they must pick their battles to be effective and that they increase their clout and credibility with politicians and regulatory agencies by negotiating reasonably.
``There is no other way to work within the system,'' says Mr. Gluckman, who has been the target of some hard-line criticism. ``People are realizing they don't have to compromise, whereas some of us have to swallow hard on some things we would rather not do.''
If environmentalists always remain in adamant opposition, he says, then they will simply no longer be notified of meetings where decisions are made.
In an ironic example, Mr. Podgor led a team of environmentalists and lawyers working ``pro bono'' to bar an industrial park proposed for a Dade County drinking-well field. When he arrived in Tallahassee for a hearing before the state Department of Community Affairs, he found himself wandering the hearing-room floor while the governor, state agency officials, and negotiators for the Florida Audubon Society were upstairs hammering out an agreement.
To his chagrin, Florida Audubon agreed on a complex set of clean air and water requirements for the park - but allowed the park, which is now under construction.
``I don't mind being defeated,'' Podgor says, ``but I don't like being defeated by my allies.''
The most frequently criticized negotiator, Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society, also serves the largest environmental organization in the state.
His most debated role was over a condominium development planned for North Key Largo, the relatively undeveloped habitat of endangered species of wood rat, cotton mouse, and swallowtail butterfly. Mr. Lee was a key figure in talks with developers that eventually produced a plan to cluster development into nodes, leaving large tracts to the wild.
The major development project there collapsed anyway, and Lee says the plan was tough enough to convince property owners to sell to the state rather than attempt development.
But Podgor calls Lee's agreement ``reprehensible to most conservationists I know of here and across the country.'' Nancy Brown, a former Florida Audubon board member who resigned over such issues, calls it ``a ludicrous agreement.''
In another case, the Florida Audubon Society recommended the permitting of a trailer camp on the bank of the Suwannee River. The developer had hired Audubon lobbyists as lawyers and donated some land to an Audubon sanctuary. Yet, says conservation biologist Reed Noss, the site is in ``the largest old-growth forest remaining in the upper Suwannee watershed.''
In spite of these complaints, environmentalists on all sides view each other as allies that mostly reinforce one another.
Holly Jensen, an activist involved in the recent civil disobedience action in Gainesville, has little use for compromise. But, she observes, ``I'm really glad that Audubon and the Sierra Club are there at the game commission meetings and all. I just need to work at a different level.''
From Lee's point of view, the vocal environmentalists who refused to negotiate with the Key Largo developers, calling ``the whole thing an illegal conspiracy,'' helped force the developers to stay at the table and strike a bargain with more moderate environmentalists.
``If you're an environmentalist, then you believe in diversity,'' Webb says.