THE Clinton administration began last January like most new presidencies - full of hope and promises.
This was particularly true of its approach to environmental issues, personified by Vice President Gore, author of the book, ``Earth in the Balance: Healing the Global Environment,'' and a major participant in the 1992 world conference (which preceded the United States election) in Rio de Janeiro.
For his secretary of the interior, the new president selected former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, widely known and respected in the environmental movement, but not considered overzealous.
Environmentalists Hazel O'Leary and Carol Browner became, respectively, secretary of energy and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which President Clinton plans to give Cabinet rank.
In short, it was clear early that this administration would be ready to demonstrate its commitment to environmental protection.
It did so by tackling three of the most contentious environmental situations in the country about as quickly as the new administration's officials could put nameplates on their desks: The degradation of the Florida Everglades; over-intensive exploitation of mineral, grazing, and timber rights in the mountain West, and the much-debated effects of global warming.
The first, perhaps most impressive, initiative was Mr. Babbitt's bid to cut back on exploitation of natural resources in the West, exemplified by what Babbitt and many knowledgeable Americans have considered cut-rate fees.
At first it seemed the change might stick, but Western politicians and their constituents exhibited their clout in Washington. The proposed fee hikes were substantially reduced.
The second initiative Babbitt, Gore, and Clinton moved into rapidly was an attempt to reach agreement with the Florida sugar-cane industry on a plan for saving the rapidly degrading Everglades. Again, the Clinton administration appeared to have won the day, but the sugar industry raised its demands and killed the deal.
As to global warming, Clinton, Gore, & Co. have held no illusions about marshaling the degree of international cooperation needed within four years, or even eight, to make it possible to solve this problem. But at least Clinton can say that his administration has confronted these challenges; we hope it has the stamina and focus to continue its efforts where resolution is still needed.