ONE of the United States Congress's last acts before taking ''spring break'' this month was to advance a controversial measure that would change the Clean Water Act.
The bill, which is to come before the full House in a month or so, would ease restrictions on wetlands development and loosen some water-quality standards.
Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, the bill's author, accuses the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of ''environmental terrorism'' in the way it promulgates and enforces regulations. Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, calls this part of ''a stealth campaign to undo environmental and health safeguards before the American people know what's happening.''
As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate Earth Day next Saturday, the hard-edged rhetoric over this key environmental law (and others, such as the Endangered Species Act) reflects shifting, and in some ways conflicted, public attitudes toward environmental protection.
Emboldened by last November's elections and armed with the Contract With America, Republicans (backed by some Democrats) say it's time to ease the regulatory burden. Using recent public-opinion polls, opponents say most Americans still favor strong environmental protection.
Both seem to be right.
''A strong backlash has developed against environmental regulation as industry, states, and even ordinary citizens have resisted directives they view as intrusive, bureaucratic, and overly protective,'' says Robert Sussman, former deputy administrator of the EPA.
But in a recent publication of the Environmental Law Institute, Mr. Sussman also writes: ''While the public is frustrated with the day-to-day realities of environmental regulation, there is no reason to believe it has rejected environmental values or ceased to support strong environmental goals.''
A new survey of polling data by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and Everett Ladd of the University of Connecticut confirms this view. While the public remains deeply committed to environmental protection, these researchers find, it sees the problem as less urgent than before. And 53 percent, according to a Yankelovich poll taken last January, think it best to slow the rate of spending on environmental protection.
In essence, write Ms. Bowman and Mr. Ladd in a report released yesterday, Americans have become ''lite green.'' Despite this recent trend in public attitudes, Bowman stressed in an interview, ''the commitment [to environmental protection] remains deep across class and demographic lines.''
The explosion of grass-roots groups to defend communities from pollution or the destruction of some part of nature -- often drawing people who don't necessarily think of themselves as environmentalists -- is a clear indicator of this commitment. In 1980, Lois Gibbs, the housewife who blew the whistle on toxic waste at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., organized the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. Based in Falls Church, Va., the group provides training for local groups concerned about chemical plants, radioactive sites, and other toxic waste sources.
By 1990, Ms. Gibbs's organization had a network of 3,000 groups around the country. Today, that has grown to more than 7,000. ''What's more significant,'' Gibbs says, ''is that there are new groups of groups out there, like the Indigenous Environmental Network and the People of Color Environmental Justice Network.''
Support also is growing for land trusts as a means of controlling development. According to the Land Trust Alliance, local and regional land trusts have protected more than 700,000 acres with conservation easements -- an increase of two-thirds since 1990.
Environmental activism at the local level in many cases is translating into political recognition. Ken Hagen, who became known around Ashland, Ore., as the guy who pushed officials to build a recycling center, recently won a seat on the city council.
The latest environmental buzzword is ''sustainability'' -- defined by a United Nations commission as development that ''meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.''
Around the country, citizens and officials are forming such groups as Sustainable Seattle and Sustainable Milwaukee to see how this philosophy can be applied locally.
While fights over spotted owls and development of wetlands continue, there is also growing recognition that environmental protection and economic well-being are not mutually exclusive. ''Gold and Green,'' a recent examination of all 50 states by the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., concluded that ''the states that do the most to protect their natural resources also wind up with the strongest economies and best jobs for their citizens.'' (See chart below.)
Interest in the deeper philosophical and even theological aspects of the environment is growing as well. In 1993, leaders of Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, Jewish, and evangelical groups representing 100 million people formed the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
Last Earth Day, 58,000 congregations in the United States were sent kits by these denominations. They were designed to prompt environmental action while explaining each group's understanding of God and the natural world. Around the country, churches and synagogues are incorporating these ideas into their sermons and social work.
Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, highly suspect to many environmental activists, may have a tinge of green in his political makeup. Along with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, Mr. Gingrich is cosponsoring legislation to create a National Institute for the Environment. The bill is supported by 100 universities and more than 125 scientific and professional organizations, businesses, and major environmental groups.
For many Americans, regardless of their politics, it seems the words of poet Gary Snyder have become appropriate: ''Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.''