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Make a New `Contract for the Environment'

The US should move away from costly government regulation that supports environmental protection and heed examples set by New Zealand and the Netherlands

PROVISIONS in the United States House Republicans' ``Contract With America'' risk dismantling our federal system of environmental protection without creating an acceptable alternative. Yet, a return to political trench warfare by environmentalists and liberal Democrats will alienate the substantial majority of Americans committed to better stewardship but weary of partisan politics. Instead of drawing the battle line between the Contract and the status quo, they should propose a new approach that guarantees continued environmental progress while tackling conservatives' legitimate concerns over regulatory costs, red tape, and runaway litigation.

The Netherlands and New Zealand offer 21st-century blueprints for such a reform. Their groundbreaking environmental initiatives move well beyond our fragmented single-issue approach to environmental problems and our costly reliance on government regulation and enforcement. By holding producers accountable to comprehensive, long-term goals, rather than short-term regulatory mandates, these countries are improving their environment and their government.

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THE Netherlands established their National Environmental Policy Plan (NEPP) in 1989. In a historic change of course, the government decided to prioritize environmental ends over regulatory means. Today, comprehensive goals guide the efforts of Dutch government, industry, and the public to create a sustainable economy in 25 years, or one generation. The NEPP was developed through public consultation and won unanimous parliamentary support - from the Christian Democrats to the Greens. The Dutch have also persuaded the European Economic Community to follow suit.

American critics will claim that such an undertaking harms economic competitiveness and costs jobs. Yet, both Dutch business and labor disagree; they firmly back the NEPP. The country's 80,000-firm strong Federation of Industries even sent its chief environmental negotiator to the United States to brief executives on the model. The Dutch private sector has already signed more than 50 nonregulatory, voluntary covenants with the government designed to lower emissions and improve resource efficiency. Voluntary covenants include formal commitments to specific targets, but also give companies the flexibility to incorporate new technologies and practices.

The covenant approach is working. The Dutch government kept existing environmental standards in place to safeguard against backsliding. But, liberated from the procedural and legal straitjacket of regulatory compliance, whole industries are now ahead of schedule in attaining the NEPP's 25-year goals.

Although less tested than the Dutch NEPP, New Zealand's Resource Management Act (RMA) of 1991 is a profound example of government reform. It, too, emerged through extensive citizen participation. Implemented by a conservative government, the RMA makes Republican and Clinton administration reform proposals look tepid in comparison. The RMA has replaced 57 separate resource-management, urban-planning, and environmental laws. It has also dramatically reduced bureaucratic confusion and overlap by consolidating 800 government bodies into 93, and by establishing 14 resource agencies, each fully responsible for the integrated management of an entire watershed.

Clearly, the Netherlands and New Zealand are not the United States. They are small countries with high levels of public trust and consensus. Still, our size and many ideological and social tensions need not prevent us from heeding their example. Indeed, many of our recent environmental success stories already employ a basic tenet of the Dutch and New Zealand approach: Those affected by government policy should play a role in crafting it.

For example, local and regional partnership initiatives around the US are overcoming years of gridlock and litigation by bringing together representatives of government, business, environmental organizations, and labor to find common ground on key environmental issues.

There are other important reasons why the Dutch and New Zealand models are attractive, practically as well as politically:

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* Republicans and Democrats have called for more power to the states. Provincial and municipal governments in the Netherlands and New Zealand already have the flexibility for local solutions. Central governments delegate greater authority to provinces and municipalities, eliminate needless bureaucracy, and integrate related environmental, economic, and social policies.

* Republicans and Democrats want to reduce the burden of federal regulations. In the Netherlands and New Zealand, measurable goals and flexible, predictable policies enable business to invest in long-term environmental improvements in products and manufacturing processes, rather than in the everyday minutiae of regulatory compliance.

* Republicans and Democrats have pledged to cut the deficit. Our environmental management system is unnecessarily expensive, depending heavily on government regulation. Although the Netherlands and New Zealand have increased environmental expenditures, US taxpayers would still see better environmental returns by adopting their approach - even at current spending levels.

FORTUNATELY, this new vision has begun to capture the imagination of public officials, industry executives, and environmentalists in at least a dozen states. Tired of crisis management, they want systemic solutions. The California Senate passed environmental legislation last year. Also, one of the GOP's rising stars, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and a group of state officials and legislators are formulating a comprehensive environmental strategy using the Dutch model.

The ``Contract With America'' promises far-reaching shifts in thinking and power. While its substance is flawed, many of the Contract's aims - institutional reform, decentralization, deregulation, and decreased litigation - can and should be made compatible with an ambitious environmental agenda.

Environmentalists should take their cue from the Dutch and New Zealanders, sparing no sacred cows. A vision that unites a sincere environmental ethic with principles endorsed by conservatives would win support from a majority of American voters who never intended to sanction the imposition of an antienvironmental agenda. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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