NOT since Jimmy Carter put solar collectors on the White House roof has a president taken such a publicly active role on environmental issues.
In his Earth Day speech Wednesday, President Clinton reasserted United States leadership on global issues affecting the environment, and he promised a "greener" federal government by making agencies more energy-efficient and forcing them to obey laws on pollution.
But beneath the Earth Day hoopla, there remain concerns about the administration's ability to follow through on its promises and whether it may be too willing to compromise - with industries wanting to exploit biological diversity, for example. In reacting positively to Mr. Clinton's speech, several environmental leaders said they "look forward to working with the administration on these issues." This is a gentler way of signaling their attention to look closely over the president's shoulder, if not brea the down his neck.
Still, most environmental-group leaders pronounced themselves very pleased with Clinton's message, and some were surprised at how comprehensive the announcements were. "The president hit an environmental grand slam, in my opinion," said Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation. Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, was "unbelievably pleased."
In recent weeks, the administration has come under fire for what environmentalists perceived as a backing away from a strong stand on some issues. An attempt to raise grazing fees and charge royalties for mining on public lands in the West was removed from the president's proposed 1994 budget. And there were reports of an internal administration dispute over reducing carbon emissions to relieve global warming. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen (who comes from the oil state of Texas) and Energy Secretary H azel O'Leary (a former energy utility executive) cautioned against specific "targets and timetables" for lowering CO2, while Vice President Al Gore Jr. and senior State Department environmental official Tim Wirth argued for them, according to a source close to the administration.
In the end, Clinton sided with the latter and pledged to reduce US carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. This goes beyond the agreement reached at last year's Earth Summit. "It says the US is prepared to grapple with the issue," said Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Clinton also said he will sign the Earth Summit's biodiversity treaty, designed to slow the loss of species. The Bush administration had refused to sign, citing questions about financing and technology transfer.
Having signed the treaty - as more than 160 nations now have - countries can negotiate those issues, which is what Clinton intends to do.
"The treaty does have some faults," said Ian Bowles, legislative director at the Conservation International Foundation. "It was hurried up at the end of the Earth Summit and not quite ready. But signing it signals that the United States intends to reaffirm its leadership on international issues."
Clinton also ordered the federal government to buy alternative-fuel vehicles and energy-efficient computers, to use more recycled goods and reduce the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, and to disclose toxic wastes on government facilities.
"We've known for decades that they were some of the biggest polluters and some of the most-arrogant violators - especially the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense," Mr. Maddy said. "And here Bill Clinton stands up and says, `I'll take care of that with a stroke of a pen.' That's very significant news."
ON the issue of raising grazing fees, Maddy says he "has no doubt that [Interior Secretary Bruce] Babbitt has the authority and the tenacity to make that happen administratively." And he believes the administration will push for royalties and other mine-related issues in Congress. "The White House tells me they will put their full weight behind mining reform."
While most environmentalists welcome the Clinton declarations on biodiversity and climate change, some are raising warning flags.
Mr. Oppenheimer says the US must not only reduce CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, but it must also "cap emissions at that level forever." Otherwise, he says, "It will be like going on a diet and then gaining all the weight back. It helps for a while but won't really protect our health in the long run."
Meanwhile, more hard-line environmental groups - including Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute, and the Rainforest Action Network - are critical of Clinton's actions on protecting biodiversity. They cite recent efforts encouraged by Mr. Gore, in which three other environmental groups have been meeting with three pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms to reinterpret the treaty.
But as with the recent forest conference in Oregon, this attempt to get all sides around the table has developed as a Clinton hallmark in resolving environmental problems.