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Saving Billions While Protecting Natural Resources

The push to balance the federal budget is playing into the hands of an unlikely gathering of environmentalists, tax-reform advocates, and free-marketeers.

Looking at a long list of government subsidies and pork-barrel appropriations, they are saying to the Republican-led Congress, ''Hey, we can save billions while protecting natural resources.''

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This week, Friends of the Earth and the National Taxpayers Unionare are putting out ''The Green Scissors Report.'' It is long and filled with lots of numbers. But the bottom line is that $33 billion could be saved over the next five years by cutting wasteful (and in some cases harmful) programs in such areas as energy, water, highways, and agriculture.

As interesting as the proposals is the list of 22 organizations that contributed ideas.

They range from Ralph Nader's Public Citizen on the left to the Concord Coalition (headed by former senators Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman) somewhere in the middle to Citizens for a Sound Economy on the right. Checking in from cyberspace, the Generation X group called Lead or Leave has logged on, too.

Not everybody here endorses all the recommendations, but at least they feel comfortable clustered together on the same cover page.

Champions of these ideas are on found Capitol Hill as well. A few days ago Rep. George Miller (D) of California introduced the ''Public Resources Deficit Reduction Act of 1995.'' This, too, would reduce or eliminate what critics see as subsidies to mining; timber; ranching and energy industries; irrigators in Western states; and companies that run the concessions in national parks.

''It's time for the resource industries to grow up and get off the federal bottle,'' says Congressman Miller, vice chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee. He used to preside over the House's Resources Committee, but now must make do as ranking minority member. He says his bill could save at least $3 billion a year.

Miller is a 20-year House veteran who has fought long and hard to reform water law in the West. In trying to change natural resource policies, some of which date back more than a century, he left political bruises in his none-too-subtle political wake.

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So there is a tone of partisan glee when he declares, ''Balanced- budget pilgrims, look no further!''

But the deficit-reducing ideas put forth by the California Democrat and the ''Green Scissors'' alliance certainly are worth looking at and, in some cases, are long overdue.

It doesn't make much sense to give subsidized water to farmers to grow surplus crops. Or to give free livestock feed to ranchers who may have more cattle than is good for the public land on which they graze. Or to sell timber to private companies for less than it costs the government to build logging roads and manage national forests.

The problem is that each subsidy or bit of pork has a strong constituency; they aren't worth the political hassle for most politicians. But as former Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen once said, ''A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.'' So, like unneeded military bases that once were individually lodged in political granite, why not look at all of them at once?

Ignoring the potential for saving money while protecting natural resources could carry some political risk. A Hart poll of those who voted in last November's elections showed nearly two-thirds want Uncle Sam to get fair-market value from businesses using those resources. A Times-Mirror survey earlier in the year got similar results.

Says Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Johanna Wald, ''This is the test of whether Congress is afraid of sacred cows or ready to send a whole herd of them to the budgetary slaughterhouse.''

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