Greens turn from defense to offense


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Something there is about January in these parts - a crispness in the air, the residue of New Year's resolutions - that infuses even cynical political types with a sense of possibilities. That sense is enhanced when a new Congress comes to town, and every fourth January, when a president is inaugurated.

That's too bad because many a new idea should die aborning.

Nonetheless, in an area such as the use and protection of natural resources, when so much energy is being spent simply to stave off disaster, it is encouraging that a few folks concoct plans to improve matters. Are some of those plans mere whistles in the wind? No doubt. But now and then even the faintest tunes are heard by passersby, who may later transform them into symphonies.

Even before the year began, the optimists suffered their first defeat. This exercise in futility was the mini-campaign, led by The Wilderness Society and a new group called Republicans for Environmental Protection, to convince the House and Senate leadership not to reappoint Rep. Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski, both of Alaska, to the chairmanships of their respective resource committees.

Both men were reappointed without the batting of an eye or the creation of a well-played news story, an outcome which did not surprise anyone, even at The Wilderness Society, where the effort was seen as a useful, if symbolic, shot across the bow of the GOP leadership as well as an opportunity to forge an alliance with the pro-conservation Republicans.

So far, the latter seem like an exercise in futility themselves. The leader and founder of Republicans for Environmental Protection is Martha Marks of the tony Chicago suburb of Deerfield. Mrs. Marks can claim one solid political credential: she actually gets elected to local office - the Lake County Board of Commissioners. And she knows how to get publicity. REP has generated lots of letters to the editor and some favorable comment. What it has not generated is any noticeable influence on Capitol Hill.

Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut have written nice letters to it; no Republican in either house has joined it.

But one salient fact provides comfort and potential for growth to Marks and her allies, some of whom are now found in 45 states. Unless all the polls are wrong, most Republicans agree with them. As word of their organization gets around, more of those agree-ers might join up, and the way politics works in a democracy, in numbers there is strength.

And speaking of polls, according to one, most Republicans and even more non-Republicans would look favorably on being guaranteed "the right ... to clean and healthful air and water, and to the protection of other natural resources."

That poll should be viewed with skepticism because it was commissioned by an organization called the Coalition of Legislators for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN), the bipartisan group of state legislators who plan to propose resolutions calling for an "environmental rights' constitutional amendment in 40 state legislatures this year.

Still, the poll is by the reputable Greenberg Research Inc., which went to the trouble of giving the people it polled some of the arguments against the amendment - mainly that it would lead to too many lawsuits - and then asking them what they thought of it. The information had an impact, the poll reported, but it did not dislodge the national majority for the amendment.

Nationally, 58 percent of the respondents favored the proposed amendment even after hearing the attacks on it, with huge majorities among those under 30. In addition to its national sample of 751 respondents, the Greenberg firm took separate polls in five states, including Montana and Oregon. Perhaps surprisingly, support was somewhat weaker in Oregon, where only half of the respondents supported the amendment after hearing the attacks, while 54 percent of the Montanans did.

Don't expect to see this as the 28th Amendment any time soon. As intended by the guys who wrote the Constitution, mere majorities can not amend it. If they could, the Equal Rights Amendment would have been ratified. Instead, it inspired a powerful, well-organized opposition, which argued that its passage would lead to such horrors as unisex rest rooms. (The amendment failed; unisex rest rooms have become more common. Go figure.)

Leon Billings, a state representative in Maryland and the state's delegate on CLEAN's executive committee, acknowledges that the group aims at "a process, not an immediate result."

"We're trying to refocus the debate," Billings said. "If we succeed, the amendment won't be necessary. If not, the amendment will take on a life of its own."

A life of its own, as eternal as mortals can manage, was supposed to have been guaranteed to the Land and Water Conservation Fund when it was established in 1964. But it has not worked out that way, giving rise to the last of the probable environmental offensives of the new year, and the one most likely to succeed.

The LWCF brings in some $900 million a year, mostly from taxes on offshore oil drilling. The money is supposed to buy land for national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, and to help states and localities preserve recreation and park land. And it has. Nearly 7 million acres of park and open space have been purchased with LWCF money.

But last year, as in the past, Congress spent only a fraction of what was available - $138 million. The rest went to deficit reduction. In reaction, as the year began, some state officials, environmentalists and sporting goods manufacturers met in Pacific Grove, Calif., to form "Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation" to lobby Congress to spend the money.

The Wilderness Society is also involved here, but this effort is less quixotic than its campaign against Young and Murkowski, in part because it has more powerful allies - the National Audubon Society, some businesses, and Donald Murphy, California's state parks director.

Not that they are likely to get the whole $900 million. But there is in Washington something we may call the "Get Off My Back" rule, which could lead to partial success. This rule simply holds that if you know how to make trouble - get on TV, inspire phone calls, plant columns in prestigious journals - you might get enough congressmen to say, "OK, Get Off My Back; here's some of what you want." Your chances improve substantially when there is some merit to your case.

Would the coalition leaders take $300 million? Today they'd say no. This summer, they'd call it a victory.

Veteran reporter Jon Margolis observes Washington, D.C., from Vermont.

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