Americans support environmental protection, but don't favor putting federal bureaucrats in charge of air, water and waste concerns, according to a survey conducted by a Washington, D.C., survey research firm for the Com- petitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).
"Do you like clean air? Swimmable, fishable lakes and streams? Safe drinking water?"
If that's how you frame the questions, then you can expect the same answers as if you had asked whether someone favored world peace or an end to disease and hunger.
The relevant political question, however, is not whether Americans want environmental protection, but how it ought to be achieved.
Pollsters who ask substantive questions on environmental issues get revealing answers. Although Americans are indeed concerned about the environment, their support for environmental reform is almost equally strong. But are higher budgets and bigger programs at federal environmental agencies the answer?
In this nationwide survey of 1,000 registered voters, pollsters tested that Americans generally favor decentralized, market-oriented environmental policies. Not surprisingly, the survey produced results that pleased the CEI.
Eighty percent of the respondents called themselves either "environmentalists" or "concerned about the environment but not active." However, these self-de-scribed pro-environment folks, by a three-to-one margin, do not consider themselves to be activists. Most Americans say that a political candidate's position on environmental issues is part of their decision on how to vote, according to the survey. In fact, more than three-fourths rated environmental positions higher than five on a 10-point scale of importance.
Nevertheless, few Americans rate environmental protection as a top concern. When asked to choose "the single most important problem facing the country," less than 5 percent of the survey population mentioned environmental concern.
Americans want state and local governments to have a greater role in environmental policy. At the same time, said the respondents, the federal role should be smaller. The survey noted consistent support for state and local leadership on environmental concerns; nearly two-thirds said local government would be more efficient than feds.
Public support for this approach exists, according to the survey. Slightly more than half of the respondents agreed with the statement: "States should be able to decide what sort of environmental policies are necessary to address local and regional concerns."
A number of polls have disclosed widespread support for the compatibility of private property rights with environmental concerns. As many as two-thirds of Americans support compensation for land-owners when environmental regulations restrict private land use by reducing property values.
Although the poll results will please environmental reformers, the data still shows strong public support for federal government spending on a variety of conservation programs. Still, the findings confirm that most Americans do not believe that regulatory reform, property rights, and the shifting of power to the states necessarily diminishes environmental protection.
Even Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, reporting in 1995 on the results of a focus group, concedes that "for ordinary citizens, devolution is a way of making the environmental regime more responsive, more flexible and sensible." The question is whether environmental reformers are now ready to bring this kind of message into the debate.
If Congress desires to pursue environmental reform next term - and depending, of course, on next month's election results - it will be necessary to merge the public's concern for environmental protection with its desire for limited government and local control. Effective management of the environment, most Americans believe, can be promoted and achieved through a healthy, responsive federal, state and local partnership.