THE 1994 midterm elections have been widely interpreted as bad news for the environment. The Republican majority, the reasoning goes, will be less supportive of clean air, clean water, endangered species, and expanded parks and wilderness protection than the Democrats.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that the election mandated such changes. In most races, the environment was simply not an issue. Where voters did face such questions on the ballot, they voted in favor of protection. For example, in Michigan, voters elected to dedicate a portion of oil and gas revenues to a new state park fund. Counties in Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Virginia approved new spending for parks, open space, and environmentally significant lands.
In an election where Americans apparently demanded less government, there was a recognition that there are some tasks only governments can accomplish. Protecting the environment is one. The Roper Organization reports that 83 percent of Americans ranked environmental protection as an issue government should be addressing, behind only national defense (86 percent) and protection of individual rights (84 percent).
The environment has historically won bipartisan backing. In fact, the roots of conservation are in the Republican party, as exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt. Many of the nation's groundbreaking environmental statutes were signed into law by Republican presidents, including the Clean Air Act (1955), the Clean Water Act (1960), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). President Bush expanded the endangered species list by 50 percent.
Recently, some conservatives have argued that environmental protection is too expensive and stifles private enterprise, and that environmental legislation should be dismantled. But this notion is based more on ideology than experience or public sentiment. Consider:
* Clean air and water reduce disease and help hold down the nation's $898 billion annual health-care bill.
* Parks and natural areas attract tourism. The economic value of outdoor recreation is estimated to be $132 billion a year.
* Natural areas filter public water supplies and help control flooding. New York City is hoping to spend $250 million to protect watershed lands to avoid a $5 billion water filtration system.
* In cities, greenbelts and trees help reduce energy costs and clean the air. One mature tree absorbs an estimated 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. Trees in Chicago's 525-acre Lincoln Park are estimated to save about $25,000 a year in traditional air pollution controls.
* City parks and greenways increase tax revenues by increasing the value of nearby properties. In Salem, Ore., for example, land adjacent to a greenbelt was found to be worth $1,200 more per acre than land 1,000 feet away.
``Healing America's Cities,'' a report by the Trust for Public Land, suggests how reinvestment in urban parks and recreation facilities can address the problems most on the minds of the electorate. The report cites evidence that recreation programs in city parks decrease crime.
In Fort Myers, Fla., juvenile arrests have dropped 28 percent since a youth recreation program began in 1990. Phoenix reported a 55 percent drop in juvenile crime when basketball courts and other recreation facilities were kept open until 2 a.m. The cost of the program is 60 cents per youth. The cost of incarceration is nearly $30,000 per youth.
Many examples show how environment-based youth programs, such as the conservation corps, provide young people with needed skills, work experience, a connection to the outdoors, and, as a result, an alternative to crime and social dependence.
Victor Ashe, the Republican mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and chairman of the United States Conference of Mayors, cites an increase in federal spending for local parks and recreation programs as one of the best ways Congress can serve our nation's cities. Annual federal grants to states and localities for new park lands have averaged $35 million in the last 10 years.
A recent report by the National Park System Advisory Board concludes: ``Our national failure to invest and reinvest in parks, preserves, and recreational programs is jeopardizing America's heritage of scenic, natural, and cultural places; is damaging the lives of our families; is hampering economic growth; and is diminishing the opportunities of our children, and their children, to enjoy decent and productive lives.'' It recommends that federal park spending be increased to $1 billion and that 60 percent go to states and urban areas.
Is environmental protection doomed on the tails of the 1994 Republican sweep? Possibly, but that's not what voters intended. Ask voters whether they'd like to protect a favorite picnic or camping spot, whether a greenway would be welcome, whether their kids should be able to swim in the river or play basketball down the street. Don't be surprised if they answer, ``Well, yes, we could use some government help with that.'' 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.