On the eve of Washington festivities honoring the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin told a story about dynamiting fish in a lake.
It was a funny story full of the self-deprecating Cajun humor that makes him a beguiling speaker. But when Tauzin, a Democrat who is a leader in the movement to rewrite the nation's environmental laws, got to the punch line, he wasn't joking anymore.
"It's time now to flip that dynamite right into the water," he told a roomful of shopping center developers who had gathered for a daylong skewering of laws protecting wetlands and endangered species.
Some would say that the fuse has already been lit, and that it's only a question of how big the explosion will be as Congress--in the name of common sense, cost consciousness and private property rights--moves to overhaul the laws enacted since Earth Day 25 years ago today marked the beginning of the modern era of environmentalism.
Targeting landmark laws on air and water quality as well as the preservation of wilderness and wild animals, the campaign amounts to a counterrevolution against the federal government's license to regulate in the public interest.
The reformers, mostly Republicans, challenge the very assumptions underlying a generation of environmental policy. They say too many expensive regulations are based on unscientific judgments and that billions of dollars have been spent to regulate activities that pose insignificant threats.
John D. Graham, a professor of public policy at Harvard's School of Public Health, may have stated the argument as succinctly as anyone when he told Congress recently: "We regulate some nonexistent risks too much and ignore larger, documented risks. We suffer from a syndrome of being paranoid and neglectful at the same time."
A thousand-page law, the 1990 Clean Air Act, requires the expenditure of billions of dollars "to clean up the last 10% or so of pollutants in outdoor air," Graham has written, while comparatively little attention is directed at improving the quality of air indoors "where people spend more of their time."
Yet, as the newly proposed reforms make their way through Congress, what remains to be seen is whether this revamping of environmental policy will eliminate the inconsistencies and excesses of the Washington bureaucracy without jeopardizing the great strides made over a quarter-century.
"What I have been seeing over the last 100 days is a frontal assault . . . an attempt to roll back 25 years of public health and environmental protections," said Carol Browner, the Clinton Administration's chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Since the first Earth Day, air quality in much of the country has improved substantially. Airborne lead has all but disappeared since leaded gasoline was phased out. Smog levels have been cut by close to one-half in the Los Angeles area despite a large increase in automobiles.
Nearly double the number of lakes and rivers are swimmable and fishable since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Untreated sewage is no longer dumped in waterways. Recycling has led to a 20% reduction in municipal waste buried in landfills.
In the same quarter-century, the amount of federal land set aside for wilderness or other conservation purposes has jumped from about 50 million acres to about 280 million. National park land has nearly tripled, to about 80 million acres.
Environmental groups say that the job is far from finished, that the nation needs to continue to fix the damage done by industrialization and careless growth while preserving a natural heritage for future generations.
But driving the reform movement is the belief that many of the old solutions have backfired.
The revisionists argue that pesticide regulations have caused farmers to grow crop strains that are high in naturally occurring poisons, that logging prohibitions have clogged national forests with dead and dying timber, providing the kindling for disastrous fires, and that hunting bans in national parks have upset the predator balance and led to huge herds of elk, deer and bison that spread disease and devastate vegetation.
More than anything, the critics say, the way the environment has been protected in the past 25 years has burdened Americans with unnecessary costs, put too much valuable land off limits to commercial development and ordered up remedies that were not based on sound science.
"We can no longer afford poorly targeted, inefficient regulations that achieve only marginal environmental benefits in an inflexible manner and at an excessive cost," said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers, one of the driving forces behind the movement to change environmental laws.
The Clinton Administration has tried to slow the reform steamroller with concessions, agreeing, as Browner said in a recent interview, that "the process needs to be changed, that we need to develop more innovative, cost-effective solutions to environmental problems."