Breaking with a 34-year tradition, the staunchly nonpartisan and usually recalcitrant Conservation Foundation, an environmental research group, leaped into the fray against the Reagan administration's environmental and resource policies last week. It was prompted to take action last year by the apparent discontinuation of the reports on environmental trends that had been published annually during the past decade by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Neither the 1981 nor 1982 White House report has yet appeared, but CEQ says that they will be published. The Conservation Foundation decided to fill the gap with an analysis of its own.
Having reviewed the principal achievements and failures of the past decade and decisions taken during the past 18 months, the report concludes that "Without question, the Reagan administration has introduced a fundamental discontinuity into national resource and environmental policy." In the foundation's view, the new policies have broken a bipartisan consensus that supported a decade of extraordinary legislative and executive activity in the areas of environmental protection, pollution control and natural resource management.
In very broad terms, the report--called "State of the Environment 1982"--finds that during the 1970s substantial success was achieved in "traditional" pollution control efforts, such as those for clean air and water. In some cases, the success meant fewer emissions; in others, it meant laws that kept things from getting worse during a decade of substantial economic and population growth. Concerning more recently recognized problems, such as hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals, only a few preliminary steps have been taken. Some newly emerging problems, such as soil erosion and acid rain, are still getting worse.
In most respects, it is too early to measure the direct impact of the present administration's new approach. However, in its most valuable sections, the report zeroes in on one already measurable impact --the loss of crucial information. It documents disproportionate cutbacks in scientific research, in monitoring, in the provision of information to the public and in resource management and planning. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency's research budget has been cut by twice as much as total nondefense research. Within the departments of Interior and Agriculture, mineral and timber development budgets and funds for road construction are way up, while those for such things as soil, water and wildlife habitat management and collection of data on the state of natural systems are consistently way down.
Because of these changes, the Conservation Foundation concludes, "the information base for environmental policy, always weak, is likely to be even weaker in the future." More even than in the past, that means decisions based on ideology or guesswork--a prescription for bad decisions and expensive mistakes.