With almost everything taking second billing to Iran and Afghanistan, environmentalists were elated merely to have a few moments of Jimmy Carter's attention the other morning. The president said that Earth Day would be held this year on April 22. It would be the 10th one we have celebrated, coming in this the 10th year of the National Environment Policy Act.

The president issued a ringing statement on the anniversay of NEPA, but his words rated only a few paragraphs from the wire services. Editors ran the story in the back pages of their newspapers, if at all. It shouldn't be discouraging that the marking of a decade of environmental progress went almost unnoticed. It is actually a sign of the strength and depth of the environmental movement, which perhaps shouldn't be called a movement at all. It is in place, firmly. Since the passage of NEPA in 1970, we have had about a dozen pieces of major legislation, all forming the large reality that protecting the environment has been institutionalized. The argument in 1970 was whether we should do it. hIn 1980, it is how.

The hows pose harder questions because they demand the sophistication of weighing two or three values at once. There is the issue of Jimmy Carter himself. A year ago, he was rated highly by environmentalists. He had carried out a large percentage of his campaign promises. He valued the advice of his Council on Environmental Quality, and he stood behind officials in the Interior Department of EPA when they fought one poluting industry or another.

But in recent months, Carter has turned soft. He has increased timber-cutting in the national forests. Offshore drilling in the Georges Bank is sanctioned. Tellico Dam is going forward. And hovering over it all like a specter is the proposed Energy Mobilization Board, with potential power over decisions affecting the environment.

Environmental leaders confess to being disappointed by the recent turns. "But we are experienced now," says one of them. "We know that Carter has advisers who tell him not to waste time with us or our concerns. If we denounce him for everything he does that we don't like, we can be ignored as malcontents and absolutists.We play into the hands of those advisers, as well as the industries, that want to picture us as '100-percenters'. That becomes the justification for not dealing with us." We still criticize, but only when we think it's politically effective."

Even with this kind of sophistication, environmentalists still find themselves attacked irrationally. In a recent editorial that came off as a public tantrum against foundations that gave money to public-interest lawyers, The Wall Street Journal told its readers: "The next time you wonder why economic growth is suffering because of the fanaticism of a few environmentalists you will know whom to blame."

In one sentence, the Journal had it wrong three times:

Sound environmental policy is sound economics. Gus Speth, the head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, has carefully researched this issue. "We've had some of the country's most respected economists examine the ties between environmental laws and economic growth. Consistently, they have affirmed that the controls have not slowed economic growth and indeed are necessary for achieving our economic goals."

If fanaticism is at work, why did environmentalists lead the way in revising NEPA so as to strike out its needless delays and useless procedures? To find genuine fanatics, the boardrooms of polluting industries are well stocked. fIncreasingly, companies are avoiding the costs of environmental controls and worker protection by locating in the Third World nations. The current issue of Audubon magazine reports that "American industries spend twice as much for pollution control in the U.S. as they spend overseas."

If only "a few" environmentalists are out there, how has the Sierra Club gone from 40,000 members in 1970 to a current 180,000, or the Audubon Society from 120,000 to 404,000?

Sound laws, political sophistication and strength in numbers are not the total answer to creating what Aldo Leopold called "a state of harmony between man and land." But they are tougher ones than onyone imagined possible 10 years ago.