A few years ago a group of citizens in Everett, Wash., formed an organization called "Jetty Set," with the objective of protecting Jetty Island and surrounding area from development. The 2,000-acre island was owned by the Port of Everett, which viewed it as the perfect site for economic expansion of the port, third largest on Puget Sound, and the region in general. The business community favored it.

But the Jetty Set resisted, printed bumper stickers and raised funds for a lawsuit. One of its members sued and prevented the port from filling an area in the Snohomish River that flows into the estuary on the Everett waterfront. Another sued and prevented a proposed filling of the estuary itself. At about the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered the dispute on the side of the citizens and helped to prevent a major development by the port.

Faced with an impasse, the port commissioners asked two faculty members at the University of Washington to investigate the dispute informally. They reported a basis for compromise between the two positions existed. So in January 1977, the port authorities appointed the two faculty members, Gerald Cormick and Alice Shorett, to the job of resolving the dispute.

Their first step was to bring together a panel of ten citizens concerned with the problem. They represented labor, commercial, industrial, environmental and recreational interests. Out of a series of such meetings, presided over by Cormick and Shorett, positions were modified and the give-and-take ultimately produced a compromise that all parties willingly accepted.

Under it, the shoreline would be reserved for future development, but the estuarine environment and wetlands would be protected. No development of Jetty Island would be permitted until all other alternative sites on the city waterfront had been exhausted; if any portion of the island is developed, an equal portion must be set aside for preservation. In addition, a commitment was made to create recreational access in port projects and to require citizen participation in planning recreational access areas.

The two consultants represented a unique organization called the Office of Environmental Mediation at the University of Washington. Their success, and several others that followed throughout the nation, has attracted growing interest in environmental mediation as a practical tool that can find increasing application at a time when alternatives to government regulation and lengthy and costly lawsuits are being sought.

Cormick has gone on to become the guru of the infant environmental mediation movement, which seeks to build on, but not copy, the labor-management mediation model. Important differences exist. Unlike labor-management negotiations, which are often confined to a relatively few parties, environmental disputes typically involve many scientific, economic, political and recreational interests.

Administration strategists aren't yet ready to embrace mediation as the answer to environmental-economic-energy confrontations, but neither have they discouraged its use. Charles Warren, current chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, has declared: "I say it's time to give mediation a try." That's about as far as any official of the government has gone in sanctioning it.

Supporters of mediation do have several successes to their credit. In Colorado, the community of Grand Lakes raised funds through a bond issue for the design and construction of a sewage-treatment facility. But five alternative plans developed by the engineering firm hired by the community were rejected by EPA, which found them technically inadequate and lacking in consideration of secondary land-use impacts.

The agency then asked the Rocky Mountain Center on the Environment to review the problem and develop recommendations. The center formed an interdisciplinary team and worked with the town and the engineering firm in stimulating a compromise acceptable to all. The sewage-treatment plant is now under construction.

Another Example: The final site and construction details of the White Flint shopping mall in suburban Rockville resulted from the mediation efforts of Rivkin Associates in Washington. In return for a number of contractual covenants promised by the builder, the protesting neighborhood residents agreed to the project.

Everyone agrees that mediation is no panacea for all environmental disputes. After reviewing 60 cases in the last three years, Cormick concluded that only six would be considered amenable to mediation. A widely held view is that to be successful, mediation must be voluntary, must represent a joint commitment by the parties to seek a solution and must attempt to reach a compromise without imposing the terms of a settlement. Finally, the mediator and the parties must ensure a solution that is politically, physically and financially feasible.

Can environmental mediation really work on a large scale? A few successful cases obviously don't prove a principle or a process, but enough interest has been generated to inspire CEQ to contract with the American Arbitration Association to test mediation in five disputes involving public agencies on herbicide spraying, land use and endangered species protection. Out of that experience may emerge the first guidelines for out-of-court settlement of many environmental problems.