As one who is not sympathetic to the Reagan administration's position on the environment, I'm sorry that it has handed this issue over to the environmentalists and the Democrats. The result will be to the satisfaction of those who believe that in conflicts between preserving the environment and encouraging economic growth, we should lean to the former. But in the process, the nation has lost the chance to ponder both sides of the issue. The administration has failed to present its side of the debate.

And it does have a side. If you get the staunchest environmental lobbyists or pro-environment congressmen off in a corner, they'll admit to you that our environmental laws need to be changed. They will argue, of course, that some protections need to be strengthened. But they will also admit that some laws and regulations have turned out--now that we know more about their scientific effects or have developed new technologies and techniques--to be too strict. And they will admit as well that some provisions have proved to be ridiculously expensive; the costs far outweigh the benefits.

That sounds a lot like some of the arguments made by academics, conservative think-tank experts, and some business lobbyists. The administration itself talks about costs and benefits, and one does not have to accept its particular method of cost-benefit analysis to agree that some balancing--some sense of whether a given restriction on economic activity is worth it--should be behind any decision on an environmental issue. Reasonable people can and will differ on just how particular conflicts between the environment and the economy should be resolved. But that is what politics-- legislating in Congress and debate in elections--is all about.

If the Reagan administration had succeeded in structuring the debate as a matter of balancing economic costs with environmental benefits, it might have been able to persuade the public and Congress

to revise the envi ronmental laws in

the direction it

liked and to ratify

the administrative

acts of environ mental appointees

like Interior Secre tary James Watt

and former EPA

Administrator

Anne Burford.

But all that assumes that the leading actors in the administration really see the issue as their think- tank apologists portray it. And here the actions of some seem to belie their words. Consider:

* James Sanderson's insistence on remaining in a top position at EPA, even while he was consulting for private clients regulated by the agency.

* Rita Lavelle's constant series of lunches with company lobbyists.

* EPA's letting Dow Chemical rewrite the agency's own report on the company's activities.

From such actions, now well publicized, the public gets the clear impression that important actors in the administration were interested not in balancing competing values but in simply giving big corporations anything they wanted. Polls tell us a large majority of voters now believe appointees like Watt and Burford have been interested mainly in helping business escape regulation. These details confirm that impression.

It's getting pretty hard for those of us who want to to believe that the administration is filled with people who, if they differ with us on issues, do so out of genuine conviction and concern for the public interest. There are people who are like that working on environmental issues in this administration. But there have been too many who aren't.

This is not to say that all the charges made against Burford, Lavelle and other members of the administration are true. Politically, it hardly matters. What matters is that the administration has vividly given the public an impression which is at least partly accurate: that it is more interested in the selfish interests of its friends than it is in the public interest, however defined.

Environmental issues may or may not play a role in the 1984 election; at the least, Democrats will be emphasizing them in western states like California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. More important, the Reaganites have lost a chance to move opinion on environmental issues and to change policy more than temporarily. They have denied the public a chance to hear a second side of an important debate. They may still win the battle of EPA, but they have lost this battle of ideas.