The Eye of the Storm

IN THE FOUR YEARS THAT the Endangered Species Act has languished in congressional limbo, seven species have become extinct and the populations of dozens more have nose-dived. In the meantime, an untold number of landowners have kept mum about finding endangered creatures on their property -- for fear the Feds would make them turn their income-producing lot into a nature preserve. Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund found this a pretty miserable state of affairs. So he started meeting with the ""enemy'': the real-estate and timber industries, whose loathing of the endangered-species law had stymied attempts to improve it. Bean talked about tax incentives for property owners who kept their land suitable for rare species. He sounded them out on offering the animals ""safe harbors''; once a species bounced back, owners could do with their land as they pleased.

So much for good intentions. Republicans leading the attack on the ESA went ballistic, leaning on industry to withdraw from the talks with Bean. The bear-hugging Endangered Species Coalition kicked Bean out this spring. ""We tried to find common ground,'' Bean says ruefully. ""But there was a concerted effort on both the left and right to stop this.''

These days, the middle ground in environmental disputes looks more and more like a free-fire zone. Moderates who enter risk having their heads shot off. On issues ranging from food safety to land use, extremists at both ends -- the greener-than-thous and the pave-paradisers -- have made it ever more difficult for a reasonable middle to gain a foothold.

Why should environmental issues be any different from the take-no-prisoners debate on, say, abortion? Because environmentalists who balk at compromise can emerge worse off than they might otherwise. In the infamous ""jobs vs. owls'' debate in the Pacific Northwest, greens used the law to virtually halt logging in the ancient forests. Although President Clinton tried to broker a compromise, timber companies were still seething over their many courtroom defeats. ""Now they're going at this issue Rambo-style,'' says Marianne Dugan of the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene, Ore. Rambo gets results: last summer Congress approved a bill that has allowed vast cutting of trees in national forests.

In Idaho, moderate industry and environmental groups are learning the hard way why the center is endangered habitat. Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation have been meeting with local politicians and timber companies to hammer out a plan to return the endangered grizzly bear to eastern Idaho and western Montana by the end of the decade. The plan would establish a management council of local citizens who would be legally entitled to decide, for instance, when a bear could be killed for preying on a rancher's herd of sheep. But now the extremists' pincers are closing. On the right, Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth likened the agreement to ""reintroducing sharks to the beach.'' The Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League attacked the plan for allowing ""too much'' local control over the bears. ""I have no doubt this [plan] will be litigated,'' says Seth Diamond of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. ""We're at the table trying to solve problems and they're throwing stones at us.''

It has been nine years since a National Academy of Sciences report mapped a middle-of-the-road approach to reducing the risk of cancer posed by pesticides in food. Under the law known as the Delaney clause, no carcinogenic pesticide is allowed to remain in processed foods. But produce may have residues, as long as they're below a legal limit. The NAS report found that if some residue were allowed on processed food, in return for lowering the amount on raw fruits and vegetables to a level that posed no more than a one-in-a-million risk of cancer, that would reduce the total risk of cancer from 28 leading pesticides by 98 percent. But the effort to enact this reform is foundering. Some consumer groups refuse to budge on the Delaney clause. Farmers and the chemicals industry wouldn't budge on tightening the legal limit for pesticides on produce to the one-in-a-million risk level. So consumer and environmental groups wage their internecine war and the risk from pesticides remains stuck at 50 times what NAS calculated it might otherwise be.

Which is not to say that compromise is doomed. The grizzly reintroduction may go forward. The Endangered Species Act may be improved. Food safety laws may be put on a rational footing. But achieving the requisite compromises is no job for the timid. As Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says, ""No good deed goes unpunished.''