UP TO A POINT, it is possible to feel some sympathy for the men who have now taken control of the two most important environmental policy committees in Congress. Both James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), now chairman of the House Resources Committee, come from western states, and their experience with federal environmental regulation differs from that of lawmakers who live on the East Coast. A far higher percentage of western land is owned by the federal government, and those who live on or around it are far more restricted in what they can do and how they can invest than those who live elsewhere in the country. They are rightly more sensitive to federal regulation, which can seem, at times, almost ludicrously complex and intrusive.

Sympathy also has its limits, however. While both have said, in the past few days, that they intend to work in a reasonable, bipartisan manner, neither Mr. Inhofe nor Mr. Pombo has a particularly good record of cooperation with environmentalists or with government agencies whose views differ from theirs -- to put it mildly. Mr. Inhofe once referred to the Environmental Protection Agency as a "Gestapo bureaucracy." Mr. Pombo was once head of a task force whose main aim was to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act. Both belong to a subset of congressional environmental skeptics who seem to enjoy taunting their environmentalist opponents and who seem to deny that there is any legitimate reason to enforce environmental protection at all.

As a result of their rhetoric, and of the (sometimes) equally shrill response, the climate for environmental debate, going into this Congress, is poor indeed. This is more than unfortunate, for environmental legislation is not becoming any less important or any less complex. The signs are that dozens of environmental issues are going to arise during the next two years, some in the form of major legislation, some in the form of riders attached to other bills. Each one of these changes deserves thoughtful consideration. Some will require compromise. Not all represent insane bureaucratic overstretch. None will benefit from rhetorical excess. It is up to the new committee chairmen to set the tone. After years of seeing themselves as outsiders, discriminated against by a hostile establishment, they, and their congressional sympathizers, are now in charge. If they want their views to be taken seriously, they need to listen to their opponents, take their opinions into account and write legislation accordingly. Otherwise, they might as well toss environmental issues into the same twilight zone as judicial nominations, where nothing much gets done at all.