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Greens just keep on singing the blues

Anyone who doubts that the tone of the debate over environmental policy in this city is in serious need of improvement need only look at the reaction to last week's release of the Environmental Protection Agency's first "Draft Report on the Environment."

This report, the product of more than two years' work collaborating with more than two dozen federal departments and agencies and state and private-sector contributors, is designed to help answer a question I posed at my confirmation hearing 2{ years ago: Are America's environmental policies making our air cleaner, its water purer and its land better protected _ or not?

But judging by the reaction of some professional environmentalists to our report, you'd think we had tried to pass off The Skeptical Environmentalist as Silent Spring.

To some, it doesn't seem to matter that our report uses sound, sophisticated scientific data to look at the actual health of our environment and help us measure where our 30 years of effort have made a positive difference and where they haven't met expectations.

Some condemn the report because it doesn't discuss global climate change. It doesn't, but it does include dozens of science-based environmental indicators for air, water and land. The report shows us where we are, so we have a better idea of what we must do to get where we want to be.

For too long the environmental debate has centered on counting the number of new laws we've passed, on tallying up how much in fines, fees and penalties we've levied on polluters. Measuring process instead of progress may be easier, but it has made it difficult to adapt environmental policymaking to changing times and challenges.

When the environmental debate turns on questions of process, attempts at innovation have a hard time getting out of the starting gate. An attempt to modernize a law is cast as an effort to undermine it. A good-faith effort to try new methods of achieving better results is characterized as a retreat from existing commitments.

That's why I was disappointed that so many of those people who make their living as Washington environmentalists instinctively attacked our report. Because it contradicts their public stance that the state of our environment is bad and getting worse, they shot the messenger before they could digest the message.

But the simple fact is that the environment's health has improved considerably over the past several decades. The modern, bipartisan commitment to environmental protection _ inaugurated by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, 33 years ago and sustained by six presidents from both parties ever since _ has produced real, measurable results. That should hearten everyone who cares about the environment.

I wonder why environmentalists find it so hard to admit they really have made a difference. By many measures our air is cleaner, our drinking water purer and our land is better protected _ and they can take pride in that.

But our report also shows real challenges, including sometimes unhealthy air in large parts of the country, pollution in thousands of waterways and increasing waste materials. These are challenges we should all work on together.

Unfortunately for the tenor of public debate, too many in the environmental lobby want to hear only the bad news. That's why we're treated to bizarre spectacles such as what happened this spring when the Natural Resources Defense Council praised a Bush administration proposal to limit emissions from diesel engines on tractors, bulldozers and other off-road vehicles. "Heresy," cried their allies, appalled at the thought that any environmental group would actually support the Bush administration.

One lesson I learned during my 29 months at the EPA is that until the tone of the debate over environmental policy changes, the next generation of environmental progress will be harder than it should be. If environmental groups are truly interested in progress, not politics, they should let the facts speak for themselves and seek ways to support efforts to get to a cleaner environment.

Our "Draft Report on the Environment" does just that by giving us a factual, nonpolitical look at where we are and where we need to go.

Thoughtful criticism is always welcome and productive. Mindless attacks are not.

Christie Whitman ended her tenure Sunday as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Special to the Washington Post