Reagan and Environment: To Many, a Stalemate
By PHILIP SHABECOFF
Published: January 2, 1989
WASHINGTON, Jan. 1— When President Reagan took office, environmentalists feared the worst from the man who once said trees cause pollution. They expected him to dismantle environmental regulation and give away public lands and resources.
For their part, industry and its conservative allies hoped for a new era of environmental deregulation and easier access to oil, coal and timber on Federal lands.
Eight years later, people on both sides of the argument say the environmental legacy of the Reagan era is a stalemate: that the Administration left many serious problems unaddressed and neither revolutionized environmental regulation nor transferred large amounts of public resources to private industry.
With his 1981 appointments of two aggressive champions of industry, James G. Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne M. Burford as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Reagan seemed to have selected the nation’s environmental policies as a prime target of his social revolution. In its early years, the Administration moved rapidly to slash budgets, reduce environmental enforcement and open public lands for mining, drilling, grazing and other private uses.
Resignations and Moderation
But in 1983 Mrs. Burford was forced to resign amid Congressional investigations into mismanagement in cleaning up toxic waste. Mr. Watt also resigned after several statements viewed as insensitive to minority groups and actions widely criticized as damaging to the environment.
Under Mrs. Burford’s successors, William D. Ruckelshaus and Lee M. Thomas, the environmental agency returned to a moderate course. Both men devoted much of their efforts to restoring morale and public trust.
Mr. Watt’s successors at the Interior Department, William P. Clark and Donald P. Hodel, generally tried to follow the course charted by Mr. Watt but did so in a much less confrontational way.
Nevertheless, many environmentalists insist that the Reagan environmental record will be remembered as one of the worst of any modern Presidency. ‘Eight Lost Years’
They and their allies in Congress say the Administration was lax in enforcing antipollution laws and promiscuous in making public lands and resources available to profit-making corporations. Environmental and conservation agencies were starved for money, the agencies were politicized and their staffs were demoralized, the critics say.
Worst of all, they say, the Government deliberately delayed attacking long-term problems like global warming linked to pollution, acid rain, toxic waste, air pollution and the contamination of underground water supplies.
”It was eight lost years – years of lost time that cannot be made up and where a lot of damage was done that may not be reparable,” said George T. Frampton Jr., president of the Wilderness Society.
But the environmentalists acknowledge that their worst fears were not realized. Thanks to Congress, the courts and public opinion, they say, the laws, agencies and public lands survived the Reagan years more or less intact. A ‘Squandered’ Opportunity
The disappointment of conservatives reflects a different perspective.
”The Reagan Administration had a rare opportunity to reform America’s flawed environmental protection programs,” said a paper prepared for President-elect George Bush by the conservative Heritage Foundation. ”It has squandered this opportunity and perhaps made it impossible for a successor to design a Federal system to protect the environment at a cost the nation can afford to pay over the long term.”
Many conservatives and people in industry are disappointed that the complex, expensive system of Federal regulation of corporate activities remains in place. They had hoped to see a shift to a system of marketplace incentives to solve environmental problems. For example, the Heritage Foundation says water conservation could be encouraged if farmers who get federally subsidized water could sell some to water-poor cities in the West.
Conservatives complain that Administration efforts to transfer public resources like oil and coal to the private sector was often thwarted by heavy-handedness on the part of Administration officials. Secretary Watt was brought up short when he tried to sell large quantities of Federal coal at prices well below market levels. The Administration’s plan to lease the entire Outer Continental Shelf for oil drilling ran into stiff opposition from members of Congress who said it could prove an environmental disaster. Burford Blames the White House
In a recent interview, Mrs. Burford defended her tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency, citing the beginning of the program to clean up toxic waste. But since she left the agency in 1983, she said, there has been little progress in either cleaning the environment or overhauling the regulatory process because of ”a lack of courage” at the White House and the Office of Management and Budget.
The view that the Administration should have taken a more active hand in regulatory reform is shared by some environmental groups.
”The great failure of this Administration,” said Frederic D. Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, ”is that it blew the chance to streamline regulations and use marketplace incentives in an honest way to speed up environmental progress, lower regulatory costs and foster economic growth. Instead, the Administration abandoned any effort at progress and just accepted the weakest possible rules to protect the environment.”
Industry found the rules imposed under the 1980 toxic waste cleanup law and Clean Air Act both complex and inefficient, said H. Richard Seibert, vice president for resources and technology of the National Association of Manufacturers. But he said the fault was as much Congress’s as the Administration’s.
Administration officials object to the judgments of both the environmentalists and industry representatives. ”It is unfortunate that the emphasis is placed on the earliest years of the Reagan Administration, but in the past five years the agency has been able to accomplish a lot,” said Mr. Thomas, Administrator of the E.P.A.
Perhaps most important, Mr. Thomas said, he has helped establish the United States as ”a strong participant, if not leader, in dealing with global environmental issues.” Thomas Is Praised
Even the strongest critics of the Administration praise Mr. Thomas for his role in persuading first the United States Government and then more than 40 other countries to adopt a treaty calling for stringent controls on industrial chemicals believed to be depleting the earth’s ozone shield against solar radiation. And environmentalists generally give Mr. Thomas high marks for his efforts to carry out the environmental laws over resistance from the White House.
Mr. Thomas said that the management of environmental programs had become more effective in recent years and that his agency and the states were cooperating much more.
The Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Hodel, said the Reagan revolution had succeeded ”far better than we could have expected,” because it demonstrated that ”we can have a generally improving environment” and still make more public resources available to the private sector.
Mr. Hodel said the Administration had found the national parks in ”severely deteriorating condition” and had done much to restore them, persuading Congress to adopt entrance fees to help pay for their upkeep. Although the Administration preferred to spend money to maintain the parks rather than buy new ones, it did add a major new park, Great Basin National Park in Nevada. ‘Stalemate and Traffic Jam’
A. Alan Hill, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House advisory body that was reduced in size after Mr. Reagan took office, said the initiative early in the Administration to sell Federal lands to private interests ”fell flat on its face.” He said the Administration ”could never agree inside the family” on an approach to acid rain. And because Mr. Watt would not meet with environmentalists, there was a ”stalemate and traffic jam.”
”The President was always concerned with the environment,” Mr. Hill said. ”But other things took more of his time.”
But Mr. Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund said: ”We must ask the question: is the environment better off now than it was eight years ago? The answer is clearly no.” A Question of Credibility
Several critics of the Administration say one of its most damaging legacies will be the weakening of the environmental agencies.
Thomas C. Jorling, the New York State Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, said that when Mr. Watt was Interior Secretary and Mrs. Burford head of the E.P.A., they ”caused real damage, not just from a failure to implement the environmental laws but also from a tremendous loss of professional credibility in the environmental agencies of the Federal Government.”
Mr. Ruckelshaus and Mr. Thomas were ”successful in arresting the decline,” said Mr. Jorling, who was an Assistant Administrator of the environmental agency in the Carter Administration. But he added: ”Very little was done to restore the momentum of environmental protection. As a result there is just no force leading to the resolution of crucial public policy questions like acid rain, polluted air in the cities and pesticide control.” Energy at the Grass Roots
To Peter A. A. Berle, president of the National Audubon Society, ”the biggest lost opportunity” of the Reagan Administration was a failure to create a national energy policy built on conservation and energy efficiency. Instead, the Administration sought to rush the transfer of coal and oil from public lands and waters into private hands at bargain prices.
Critics also complain of the Administration’s persistent demand for scientific certainty before acting on problems like acid rain and global warming.
”The acid rain problem has gotten dramatically worse,” said Senator Timothy Wirth, Democrat of Colorado. ”We have thousands of lakes that are dead, d-e-a-d, dead. But they say we ought to study it more.”
Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, a forceful advocate of environmental protection who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Presidential nomination, said one of the ”ironies” of the Administration’s handling of the environment was ”the energizing of the environmental community and the rapid growth of a grass-roots environmental movement.”
Photos of Anne M. Burford (NYT/G. Andrew Boyd); James G. Watt (AP) (pg. 12)