WHEN it comes to protecting the environment, conservatives have been fighting a losing political battle for years. That's not surprising, given their consistent opposition to most protection measures - an image more that of Reagan administration obstructionist James Watt than Republican conservationist Teddy Roosevelt.
Recently, however, there has been some rethinking in conservative quarters, and it could help cool the rhetoric all around and lead to sensible solutions balancing ecological protection and economic well-being.
One such thinker is Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey and now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J. Speaking to the right-of-center Heritage Foundation last fall, Mr. Kean warned conservatives that "if you neglect this issue, if you surrender it to the far left, if you relegate it to the back of your policy files, you will hurt yourselves politically, you will leave the issue to be captured by extremists, and, worst of all, I believe you will allow the environment to suffer."
The environment, said Kean, is a "vital domestic issue we need to keep on page one of every conservative agenda." To those conservatives who consider themselves religious, Kean reminds them of what Solomon says in the Bible: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever." (Ecl. 1:4)
John Shanahan, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst, is even more direct with his conservative brethern.
Environmentalists, he concedes, "have had the high moral ground" over the years on issues like pollution and species protection. "To protect the economy, we conservatives have fought the environmental movement step by step, and we have lost step by step," he told a meeting of the Lincoln Caucus in Phoenix last November.
"Through it all - and you're not going to like this - we conservatives often were on the wrong side of the fence, the wrong side of an emotional issue," he said. "And through it all - and this is painful for me to say - we often were on the wrong side of the environment."