PROSPECTS for improvements in the environmental quality of life - in some instances in potentially landmark ways - are emerging from President Clinton's first year in office.
Mr. Clinton is an active centrist, facing hard issues while seeking resolution compatible with mainstream America. But centrism's pitfall is the temptation to declare an unfinished task complete simply by splitting the difference. Clinton's plan for the Pacific Northwest's ancient forests is marred by this flaw. So is his wetlands policy, which barters some tougher measures for a net loss of wetlands.
Yet in world trade, Clinton has won a seminal victory: The environmental provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement are precedent-setting. The environment now has a permanent place on the trade agenda. Clinton should work to infuse NAFTA's environmental gains into the broader world trade accord concluded last month.
Clinton's most far-reaching environmental legacy, however, is slowly taking shape in the public lands of the American West. The goal is to end well over a century of often heedless natural-resource exploitation. The first test likely will come with plans to protect the public range from livestock overgrazing. Next will be mining-law reform to finally secure a fair return for the billions of dollars in gold and silver taken from public land without royalty.
Rebuilding the US Forest Service already is under way. This once-respected agency now has the most disgraceful land-stewardship record in the nation's recent history. Great stands of national forests have fallen in a mania of chainsawing, road carving, watershed blight, and wildlife damage.
Once-sacrosanct water subsidies present a more daunting challenge. Huge federal water subsidies nourish surplus crops in the desert while city residents ride an escalator of rising water bills. Wildlife damage has been dismissed or unexplained.
The activist Clinton opened the entire Western portfolio. The centrist Clinton, however, retreated at the first sign of resistance from Western senators.
The president has discovered that boldness in advocating what's right does not automatically attract consensus. He wants both, but he may have to choose between them.
Clinton's linkages between environmental and economic policy draw less attention. Given time, though, they should pay dividends. Substantial federal research is being devoted to environmental technologies. Export promotion has a new green tinge. The sluggish market for recycled products will benefit from Clinton's decision that the federal government buy more recycled goods.
Clinton also has fostered a less combative relationship between industry and government. As long as this relationship is not too cozy, the nation seems inclined to give it a chance. One tentative initiative is to build a super-efficient car in conjunction with the Big Three automakers. The policy also embraces a review of environmental regulation - a potential victory if it cuts the cost to fight pollution, a disaster if it becomes an excuse to skirt cleanup or prevention.
Internationally, Clinton has asserted US leadership on climate change and biological diversity. Foreign aid is being redesigned to promote sustainable development.
Overall, Clinton's environmental record is of a piece with the rest of his presidency. He's taken on tough issues, but not yet wrestled them to the ground. He's a fount of initiatives, yet susceptible to losing focus.
``We can do better'' may be Clinton's guiding conviction, whether he's speaking about crime, the health-care system, or the economy. He's right. America can do better. And on the environment, where he's made a fair start, that's just what Clinton should do. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.