Having worn a look of patient suffering through seven summers while wearing heavy leather hiking boots, I note bitterly that now there are boots of feather-light fabric and cushiony soles that are comfortable from the first step. Thus does American capitalism produce comforts that subvert the Calvinist spirit that produced American capitalism in the first place.
This does not mean that hiking trails will suddenly be congested. Many, perhaps most, Americans feel as the Rev. Tom Marshfield does. The protagonist of John Updike's splendid novel, "A Month of Sundays," says: "Athletic fields and golf courses excepted, the out-of-doors wears an evil aspect, dominated as it is by insects and the brainless proliferation of vegetable forms."
But America will not soon be paved over or otherwise manicured. The amount of standing forest is about what it was 50 years ago, and 75 percent of what it was in 1620. And in spite of rhetoric about getting government "off the back of" and "out of" this and that, poll after poll reveals a national consensus for governmental activism concerning environmental protection.
Indeed, if the Reagan years become locust years, that will be because a few strategically placed persons recognize and regret that consensus. The administration's plan to offer for lease, quickly, one billion acres of offshore oil tracts looks like an attempt to seize a fleeting opportunity. It is economically improvident to dump tracts onto a depressed market; it is environmentally rash to do so at a pace likely to overwhelm the capacity for supervision.
At a first sale, held two weeks ago, bids were received on only 40 of the 554 available tracts. The 40 high bids totaled just $12.3 million, the lowest yield per acre in the 28 years of federal offshore leasing. Recent leasing on Alaska's North Slope brought $70 million. At least $500 million had been anticipated.
A recent sale of coal leases in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming brought such disappointing revenues that the sale may be challenged in court as a violation of the law requiring that the public get fair market value for coal. Of the 13 tracts for lease, eight attracted one bidder, three tracts attracted two bidders, and two tracts attracted one. The Interior Department plans to lease 5 billion tons of coal over the next two years. Critics say the market is already glutted: given the current rate of mining, two centuries worth of coal land has already been leased.
Congress' fiscal 1983 budget resolution anticipates $13.7 billion in revenues as a result of administration "managment initiatives." These executive branch initiatives are the most important deficit-reducing measures. The biggest component of the package of initiatives is supposed to be bonus bids, royalties and rents from offshore oil exploration. Yields from these sources are supposed to double in fiscal 1983. They will not.
James Watt, the interior secretary, plans to sell up to 35 million acres of public lands -- a chunk of America about the size of Iowa. The administration is eager to increase timber cutting in national forests, in spite of the fact that today there are 30 billion board-feet of cut but unsold timber. The administration is nothing if not reverent about the law of supply and demand, but it seems careless about increasing supply in a period of slack demand. The explanation probably is that the administration thinks such sales are good for the nation's soul, regardless of economic results, because shrinking the public sector is inherently good.
Watt is the administration's most vigorous (some would say lurid) exponent of this doctrine. He is the only person conspicuous in the upper reaches of the administration who tends to confirm the cartoon of Ronald Reagan as an immoderate ideologue. He has the sharpest tongue and the bluntest political instincts in Washington. In a city of subtleness and nuances, many of the most effective operators have public personalities as pale as candles. Watt is a blowtorch.
That is one reason why, after 19 months of doing battle with Watt, environmentalists are merry as crickets. They are holding their own, in Congress and courts, regarding the Clean Air Act, pesticide controls, leasing in wilderness areas, offshore leasing and other matters.
This is not because most American closets contain hiking boots (either the old, character-building kind or the new decadent sort). Rather, it is because even Americans who resemble the Rev. Marshfield -- who think, with reason, that the story of civilization is the story of mankind's long hike from the heath to concrete -- know that acid rain falls on golf courses, too.