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Published: May 20, 1992

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As the recession hangs on and the election nears, the Bush Administration has followed a pattern of altering environmental laws and regulations to open more Federal land and the nation's natural resources to development, top Administration officials say.

The pattern emerged last summer, when the White House proposed eliminating restrictions on building and development on half the nation's wetlands. Since then the Administration has fostered a flurry of new proposals to make more of the nation's coal, timber, oil, water and land available to industry and agriculture.

Administration officials say the effort to open natural resources has been aided by President Bush's four-month-old regulatory moratorium in which existing environmental rules are under review and others are being rewritten to reduce their cost to business. Philosophy and Politics

Together, the two policies represent the strongest effort to reduce environmental restrictions since the early days of the Reagan Administration, White House officials and critics of the President say.

In public statements and private conversation, Bush Administration officials say the pattern reflects both the philosophical effect of the President's Council on Competitiveness, which is headed by Vice President Dan Quayle, and concern over carrying Western states in the election this fall.

The general thrust of both forces has been to shift the balance toward economic concerns instead of the conservationism favored by the main environmental groups.

"The President has always been in favor of protecting the environment in a way that is compatible with growth," David M. McIntosh, the executive director of the President's Council on Competitiveness, said Monday. "What you are seeing is a series of decisions that focused on the economic growth side of the balance. Perhaps what is going on is a shift in emphasis."

Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. said anti-environmental sentiment among some Western voters also played a role. In the Reagan years these sentiments fueled a movement called the "sagebrush rebellion," which put pressure on the Interior Department to open more Federal land for mining, grazing and logging.

Secretary Lujan has alerted the White House that members of the old rebellion have joined with private landowners, the timber industry, coal companies and others who rely on natural resources to form a new coalition that calls itself the "wise use" movement. Conservative Constituency

Mr. Lujan says the Administration should address the movement's agenda to improve its standing with its natural conservative constituency and should not worry so much about sentiment of environmentalists who, he believes, will not support Mr. Bush under any circumstances.

"I have never seen a positive reaction from environmental groups no matter what we do," the Secretary said. "I don't ever expect a positive reaction."

In an interview Saturday, Mr. Lujan, who served from 1969 to 1989 as a Congressman from New Mexico, said he was bringing "the plight of the Western constituency to the White House," and added: "People who live in the West look at the land in a different way than people east of the Mississippi River. Land is our heritage to use and not just lock up and put away, where only backpackers can go. I have been telling the White House staff that our constituency, the conservative Republican constituency, is not pleased at being ignored."

A number of officials agree with Mr. Lujan that the White House is driven by fears that the traditional Republican Party support in the eight Rocky Mountain states, which have a total of 40 electoral votes, is eroding. The White House is also following a plan devised by Senator Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington state, to recapture Oregon and Washington, the only two Western states Mr. Bush lost in the 1988 election.

Thus, the President's strategy is meant to shore up support among the timber, mining, coal and agricultural groups that anchor the "wise use" movement. Leaders of the movement are pressing for a loosening of policies that they see as brakes on the economy. They also want to protect jobs and families by providing resources that some of the nation's largest industries need to operate.

Last week, in the clearest signs yet that Mr. Bush is taking account of industrial interests in weighing environmental protections, a Cabinet-level committee voted to exempt the Government from the Endangered Species Act and allow the cutting of 1,700 acres of forest in Oregon that provide habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl. Secretary Lujan also proposed legislation that, if approved, would rewrite the basis of the Endangered Species Act by introducing economic considerations, like the loss of jobs, when deciding if a rare species deserved Federal protection. Air Pollution Curbs Relaxed

The President also decided last week to allow companies to increase toxic air pollution above levels authorized on their operating permits without notifying the public. William K. Reilly, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, had argued for months that the Clean Air Act of 1990 required such increases to be subject to public review. In taking the action, Mr. Bush sided with his Vice President, who said that long public reviews would delay worthwhile changes in manufacturing and might cause companies to move their plants overseas.

Environmental leaders in Congress said they would fight the Administration's actions. Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is a co-author of the Clean Air Act, has filed a lawsuit contending that the President's decision to allow companies to increase emissions of pollution without notifying the public was "a knowingly illegal act."

Mr. Waxman, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, has scheduled a hearing on the issue, to be held Friday. "This is extremely troubling," he said in a statement Sunday about Mr. Bush's decision. "The notion that the President cannot change the law on his own, regardless of what big business wants, is basic to our democratic process."

Other actions the White House has taken to ease environmental restrictions and open resources to industry have been made quietly. They include new rules at the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department to eliminate the ability of the public to appeal and block timber harvests, mining, oil drilling, grazing and other uses of public land.

The Interior Department has also proposed a separate rule to make it easier for coal companies to strip mine Federal forest land in the East and grazing land in the West. And as the centerpiece of the President's energy policy, the White House wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration.

Privately, some influential Administration officials agree with their critics that the new policy directives are a sharp departure from Mr. Bush's first year in office, when he proclaimed himself the "environmental President" and appointed Mr. Reilly, a leading conservationist, to direct the environmental agency. Rewriting the Rules

Perhaps the most important change in environmental regulations that the Administration has proposed so far is rewriting rules to limit or eliminate the public's ability to intervene in corporate or government decisions.

In March, Mr. Lujan eliminated the public's decades-old ability to appeal decisions by the Interior Department and to block oil exploration licenses, grazing permits, mining leases and other industrial uses of public lands.

Mr. Lujan said in the interview that useful projects on public lands were being delayed indefinitely by opponents who did nothing more than mail in criticisms, automatically initiating long reviews of the agency's decisions. "It was the 29-cent appeal," he said. "A letter stopped everything. Now if they want to appeal, they go to court."

A month later, Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan used the same rationale as the basis for proposing to eliminate an 85-year-old rule that gave the public the right to appeal decisions by the United States Forest Service and to block sales of timber on Federal land.

"What you see is an understanding by the President that in a recession there is an increased sensitivity to the job side of the equation," Michael R. Deland, the chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, said today. "The President has an understanding and empathy for folks out of work. He doesn't want to see additional people put out of work by a rule that does not effectively protect public health and the environment."

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