To mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, President Clinton visited the Chesapeake Bay and issued a warning that legislation in Congress would roll back laws that have helped to clean up the environment - and the Bay - during the past quarter century.

"This Earth Day may be the most important Earth Day since the beginning because there is such a great debate going on now that threatens to break apart the bipartisan alliance to save this country," he said.

Using the Bay as a backdrop, he praised the longstanding, and bipartisan, cooperation among states, federal agencies, citizens and politicians that has worked to restore the nation's largest estuary.

"If you ever doubt what we can do together to preserve our heritage, all you have to do is look at this Bay," he said. "The beauty you see is God-given, but it was defended and rescued by human beings."

But he tempered that with a warning that legislation in Congress pushed by "special interest" lobbyists would jeopardize key laws that made the cleanup possible.

More than 2,000 people gathered on the waterfront of Havre de Grace, Md., on a cold, drizzly morning to hear the president speak. Havre de Grace is located at the point where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. It boasts of having the nation's oldest recycling program, and one of the four campuses of the National Civilian Community Corps - a part of the president's AmeriCorps national service program - is located at the adjacent Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Just prior to the president's remarks, AmeriCorps president Eli Siegal signed an agreement with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and other organizations to cooperate on restoration activities (see story, page 2).

But the main theme was to make the silver anniversary of Earth Day a rallying point against legislation in Congress that would weaken environmental laws passed since 1970.

"We are our doing our job at the community level. We are fighting every day to protect our air and our drinking water and save the Chesapeake Bay," said Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, a grassroots citizens group. "The government needs to stand behind us, to help us, and to work in partnership with us. We can not afford to lose these important environmental laws."

Clinton, speaking a few minutes later, agreed that citizens would not have been able to restore the Bay without the "bipartisan lines of defense" sparked by the first Earth Day, including the passage of federal laws to protect air, water, endangered species and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"It would be crazy to throw the gains we have made in health and safety away, or to forget the lessons of the last 25 years," Clinton said, "but that is just exactly what some of the proposed legislation in the United States Congress would do, and you must be clear about it."

He said that House-passed legislation to impose a moratorium on all new regulations would "handcuff" the government's ability to respond to problems such as the contaminated drinking water that killed 100 people in Milwaukee in 1993 or the contaminated meat that killed several children and sickened hundreds of others two years ago in the Northwest.

Another House bill requiring risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses on many new regulations was "designed to construct gridlock," Clinton said. "The bill would let lawyers and special interests tie up the government forever in lawsuits and petitions," he said. Clinton said he would support a "reasonable bipartisan bill" requiring the government to pay more attention to regulatory costs.

Clinton said he would veto "takings" legislation that passed the House. The bill would require the government to reimburse property owners for the lost value of their land when enforcing regulations.

"This is about making taxpayers pay polluters not to pollute," he said. "This is about making the government pay out billions of dollars every time it acts to protect the public. It would bust the budget and benefit wealthy landowners at the expense of ordinary Americans."

Clinton noted that similar legislation has been on the ballot in 20 states and has never passed. "Well, the voters don't get to vote on the "takings' legislation, so the president will vote for them, and the president will vote no."

Clinton said "the lobbyists for the big companies thought up these bills. And they were actually invited to sit down at the table and draft the bills and then explain them to the congressmen who were supposed to be writing them."

The remarks were aimed at recent reports that lobbyists played a major role in writing several pieces of regulatory reform legislation as well as new versions of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

"The lobbyists were given a room off the House floor to write speeches for the congressmen explaining why they were supporting the bills that the lobbyists had written for them," Clinton said. "When some senators held a briefing on one of these bills recently, they invited the lobbyists to explain what they were for, since they had written it and the senators hadn't quite got it down yet."

Clinton said he supported the "right kind of change" that would reduce bureaucracy and improve government performance. "It shouldn't take a forest full of paper to protect the environment," he said. But he said people should "just say no" to laws that would "roll back health and safety."

Also joining Clinton at the event were Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, the state's two Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican congressman representing much of the Eastern Shore who opposed several of the House bills that Clinton attacked.

"Take a last look at this beautiful Bay behind me," Clinton said in closing. "I'll never forget the first time I saw the Chesapeake, about 30 years ago now - a little more actually. Will your children's children see what we see now and what I saw then? Will there be water clean enough to swim in? Will there be a strong economy that is sustained by a sound environment? Believe me, if we degrade our American environment, we will depress our economy and lower our incomes and shrink our opportunities, not increase them.

"It is our landscape, our culture and our values together that make us Americans," the president said. "Stewardship of our land is a major part of the stewardship of the American Dream since the dream grew out of this very soil. Robert Frost wrote, "The land was ours before we were the land's.' This continent is our home, and we must preserve it for our children, their children and all generations beyond."