ENVIRONMENTALISTS -- those professionals and busy amateurs, who, having appropriated this label, can then point meanly to any opponents as "anti-environmentalists" -- are not a joyous lot in these days of Ronald Reagan, nor were they ever expected to be. They didn't even wait for registration day at the electoral college before predicting the decline and fall of Washington's environmental empire under the Reagan administration. Soon and not surprisingly, they were reeling at the choice of James G. Watt for interior secretary; and now many of them see further disaster in two other reports from the environmental front: 1) that the administration is considering doing away with the Council on Environmental Quality and 2) that, on the advice of Colorado brewer Joseph Coors and with the blessing of Secretary Watt, President Reagan has named Denver corporate attorney Anne M. Gorsuch to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Actually, the environment and the administration could fare perfectly well without the services of either the Council on Environmental Quality or Mrs. Gorsuch. There is every reason to believe that, as some administration officials are arguing, other agencies could perform any of the council's functions that may be deemed useful; but the thin credentials of Mrs. Gorsuch for the complex job of running a large and important agency such as EPA do pose a serious threat to its record in cleaning up the country's air and water.
In neither of the cases is it simply a question of pure "cost-benefit analysis." The budget of the CEQ is relatively tiny; consolidation and efficiency are the stronger arguments for meshing the agency's staff functions with those of other staffs in the executive branch. If mediation between these other agencies -- or an "environmental conscience" in the White House, as the council's advocates describe it -- is necessary, there are many respected Republicans with long records of environmental concern who can be tapped for counsel.
Some of the most delicate and important compromises on environmental regulations have been negotiated by the EPA. But the naming of Mrs. Gorsuch -- coupled with a proposal to give the budget director veto power over EPA decisions -- add up to a crippling blow. Another reason for naming someone with more experience is the forthcoming congressional reconsideration of the Clean Air Act; there is considerable anxiety among Republicans as well as Democrats on the Hill about getting into a bitter struggle over fundamental changes in the act. During this process, and afterward, EPA should have strong, knowledgeable and respected leadership -- a message that Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee can send effectively by rejecting this nomination.