In most American cities, the sputter of mowers, chippers, and trimmers is a welcome sign of summer, and the signature of a prosperous neighborhood.
But lately the nation's love affair with lawn maintenance has grown complicated. According to recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the 89 million gas-powered lawn and garden tools in use nationwide, combined with other small-engine machines, belch out 6.8 million tons of waste each year - 10 percent of all airborne pollution.
Although the EPA instituted some mild new emissions standards last week, the further reductions that the EPA is pushing will not come easily. Republicans in Congress are leery of regulation in general, and changes in the cost and design of lawn tools could incite a popular backlash.
In an attempt to soften the blow, the EPA has brought manufacturers, environmentalists, and consumers together to pursue a compromise. In addition to providing for cleaner air, the outcome could pave the way for Washington to expand its regulatory net in an era of smaller government.
"We've done a good job of controlling big emissions," says Bob Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland. "But if we ever want to be successful in meeting our clean-air goals, we need to go after small sources."
Indeed, nationwide attempts to limit automobile emissions over the last two decades have exceeded expectations and prompted manufacturers to develop more efficient engines. On the strength of that success, Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act, which directed the EPA to study the effects of pollution from "non-road" engines and to develop new regulations to curb it.
But the 1994 Republican conquest of Capitol Hill changed the political equation. Driven by industry complaints about the prohibitive cost of complying with federal mandates, Republicans pushed for a moratorium on all new federal regulations and threatened to cut the budgets of regulatory agencies.
Since then, the EPA has worked harder to bring industry to the table to help design regulations - a strategy that has shown some promise. When the EPA determined that pollution from wood-burning stoves was a significant health risk in ski areas, the agency gathered representatives from all sides and persuaded stove makers to develop better pollution-control technologies.
Likewise, an EPA negotiation yielded an agreement on reducing emissions from boat engines last week, and officials plan to begin work soon on regulating emissions from motorcycles, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles.
Yet attempts to negotiate more stringent emissions curbs on lawn and garden tools have hit snags. After three years of talks, negotiators were unable to agree on comprehensive standards that would meet the EPA's goal of reducing hydrocarbon emissions 32 percent by 2003.
Buoyed by the antiregulatory climate in Washington and GOP attempts to scuttle the talks completely, manufacturers avoided making substantial concessions. The talks produced mild standards for the 1997 model year and a tepid vow to use those as a "basis" for further changes.
Some analysts argue that the EPA's foray into this new regulatory arena is misguided. Robert Crandall, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, argues that because pollution levels differ so widely between states, decisions about emissions standards for things like lawn mowers and motorboats should not be decreed by the federal government. He notes that California has made great strides in reducing emissions from a variety of sources.
Even some EPA officials acknowledge that new regulations on lawn equipment could be a hard for the public to swallow. "The American people - after their cars and houses on the beach - value their lawn mowers," says Deborah Dalton, an EPA official involved in the talks.
Yet environmental activists still contend that something must be done about lawn mower, boat, and construction-vehicle emissions. Because they've never been regulated, most manufacturers still employ a crude two-stroke engine that chokes out more pollution than the cleaner-burning four-stroke engines found in cars. According to EPA figures, one chain saw operated for an hour pumps out as much pollution as a car that travels 200 miles.
While not a fan of federal regulation for lawn tools, Mr. Crandall rejects the notion that technological innovation is too costly. In the case of acid rain, he notes, industry estimates of the costs of meeting EPA mandates were 100 times higher than actual cost.