WASHINGTON -- The White House is playing environmental matchmaker, encouraging odd couples such as the Nature Conservancy and the Pentagon as they team to save wild birds and military training ranges.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is among Cabinet members talking up ''cooperative conservation," the buzzword for the first presidential conference on the environment in 40 years. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton says the aim is ''to energize citizen-conservationists."
President Bush hopes that the meeting opening today in St. Louis will boost local involvement nationwide. Leveraging federal money and helping cut regulatory red tape are other goals, his top environmental adviser said.
Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration wants to dramatically expand the federal programs that allow for local conservation efforts yet also ''reduce some of the expansive machinery of government that can sometimes get in the way."
Agencies plan to emphasize:
Interior Department programs that give direct financial help for conservation by ranchers and other private landowners.
Environmental Protection Agency help in commercially redeveloping waste sites.
Agriculture Department backing for preserving farmland.
Commerce Department aid in preserving marine habitats.
''As a 25-year EPA scientist, I have learned that when we act alone, mandating rules and regulations, our environmental progress is limited," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said.
With about a quarter of all 1,268 endangered and threatened US species residing on military bases, the Nature Conservancy has been an active partner with the Pentagon.
The Nature Conservancy, based in Arlington, Va., is an international nonprofit group with a stated mission of ''preserving the diversity of life on Earth."
The group's president, Steven McCormick, says it helps identify natural habitat that species need to survive, then sets about securing land and funding to create buffer zones. ''We felt that it was a tremendous opportunity," McCormick said. ''There are more endangered species on military facilities than on any other federal lands. They contain some incredibly important habitat, and species depend on it."
The group hired Bob Barnes, a retired Army brigadier general, to help. He had seen the idea take hold with the Red- cockaded woodpecker at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Congress appropriated $12.5 million this year specifically for creating partnerships for dealing with endangered species at military facilities, the first time lawmakers have taken such action.
''We're hopeful that the White House conference will at the very least create greater awareness of these unlikely alliances," McCormick said. ''Regulation and buying land alone probably won't be sufficient for conservation to take hold on a really large scale."
Environmental activists critical of Bush's environmental record support the premise that landowners play an important role in protecting endangered species, and water and air quality. Nearly four-fifths of the land in the lower 48 states is privately owned.
''It's not enough to put a fence around the land," said Robert Bonnie, a senior economist for New York-based Environmental Defense. ''We need landowners to go out and do things, restore habitat, plant buffers around streams -- trees, native vegetation."
White House critics caution against relying too much on public- private partnerships. ''I would be skeptical of any contention that 'cooperative conservation' is the only tool needed," said Michael Bean, a senior lawyer for Environmental Defense. ''I think they want to emphasize that and de-emphasize the regulations."
At the last summit on ''natural beauty" in 1965, President Johnson supported a ''new conservation" ethic against too much growth and industry harming the landscape.
''For us, this administration has become overly reliant on this type of approach," said Wesley Warren, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a lobbying and litigating group. ''It's just another name for voluntary partnership. It would be like saying we're just going to rely on voluntary baggage screening to provide airport security. It's good as far as it goes, but it's not enough."
But Connaughton said the White House only wants a bigger bang for its buck.
''The federal government owns and manages 1 of every 5 acres," he said. ''This is about how to work out paths to engage in conservation on the other 4-out-of-5 acres."