ON environmental issues, this week's elections were decidedly ``green'' - but it was money and not the outcome that made it so. Around the country, most ballot measures designed to protect the environment and natural resources failed to win majority support. Analysts cite two key reasons: concern that strict environmental measures would carry heavy costs that could harm the economy, and the fact that those opposed to such measures (generally industry groups) vastly outspent proponents.
``I would hesitate to say there is an environmental backlash,'' says Colorado State University political scientist James Lester, who tracks environmental policy at the state level. But he notes that ``these results are in direct conflict with what the polls have been saying for the past 20 years.''
Among the measures defeated: California's ``Big Green'' and ``Forests Forever'' questions, which would have stiffened regulation of emissions, pesticides, offshore oil-drilling, and logging; a Washington State initiative to enforce land-use planning at the local and regional levels; Oregon initiatives to require recycling standards for all food and product packaging and also to close the Trojan nuclear power plant until a permanent radioactive-waste site is found; a Missouri initiative to protect 52 natural waterways, mainly in the Ozarks, by banning new dams and restricting landfills and dumping, septic tanks, and structures near the waterways; a limitation on large-scale gold or silver mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota; and a $1.975 billion bond issue in New York to be used for environmental protection.
``It is disappointing,'' said John Rensenbrink, a national spokesman for ``Green'' parties and local groups around the country. ``I would not underestimate the power of money to influence referenda and the power that the lobbies and special interests have to focus the advertising campaign so that 60 to 65 percent favoring something good for the environment in the spring can fade away by November.''
But California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, a primary sponsor of Big Green, also cited ``a confluence of events'' to explain voter conservatism. ``I think the invasion of Kuwait, the beginning of the recession, the national budget crisis, the state budget crisis - all those things have scared people,'' he said.
There are problems, too, with the way the measures are received by voters. ``The fatal flaw in some of these initiatives was their length and complexity - heavy-laden with the language of lawyers and legislative draftsmen,'' said Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. That lends itself to unfortunate and unfair attack. It also lends itself to a kind of common-sense criticism. People say, `If I can't understand this, I'm not sure I should vote for it.' ''
Despite the initiative defeats, Mr. Maddy notes ``some really bright spots'' for environmentalists among congressional races. He cites the defeat of incumbent House Republicans Charles Pashayan of California, Denny Smith of Oregon, John Hiler of Indiana, Stan Parris of Virginia, and Arlan Stangeland of Minnesota - ``part of a small hard-core, fringe group in the House who take the position that the federal government has no role to play on the environment,'' says Maddy. ``Each was defeated by someone who ran as an environmentalist. This will sweeten the climate when we introduce bills and try to pass them.''
The Sierra Club figures it picked up 14 environmental seats in the House and won at the gubernatorial level with the election of Barbara Roberts in Oregon, Bruce Sundlun in Rhode Island, Ann Richards in Texas, and Lawton Chiles in Florida.
And a few environmental measures did pass this week. South Dakotans approved an initiative requiring legislative approval for large-scale garbage dumps. And Arizonans voted to spend $20 million a year in state lottery receipts on wildlife-habitat protection, parks, trails, and other environmental endeavors.