George Bush is now on record as a committed defender of the environment. Highlights from his speech at Lake Erie Wednesday should be recited by his followers, like the Pledge of Allegiance is at school.

According to the wire services, the vice president called for "a new appreciation for the land and water - a conservation ethic." What a refreshing change."The waiting period for action on acid rain is over," he said in an address to environmental groups at Gibraltar, Mich. "The time for study alone has passed."

He promised that if he is elected president he will cut "millions of tons of sulfur dioxide emissions by the year 2000" and significantly reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Earlier, he proposed a ban on ocean dumping.

"I am an environmentalist," Bush said. "Always have been, from my earliest days as a congressman . . . and I always will be, to my last days as president."

He said he would convene a global conference at the White House so all countries could work toward improving the environment.

"We will talk about global warming. We will talk about acid rain. We will talk about saving our oceans and preventing the loss of tropical forests. And we will act."

He promised to get tough on polluters, and said those responsible for dumping should pay for the cleanup.

The Environmental Protection Agency "will have my mandate: go after polluters," he said.

Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis ridiculed Bush's "election-year conversion."

But if that's what it was, so what? It only makes the Bush stance stronger. The intense political campaign, the meetings with hundreds of Americans out here in the grass roots, made him understands that people want nature protected.

Especially over the past eight years, many had the feeling that the Democratic Party is the party of conservation. Yet I doubt either side has a monopoly on protection.

I've been writing news articles about the environment since the first or second year of the Nixon administration. Looking back over those two decades, I realize Republican Nixon was actually a strong leader in protecting the environment, while Democrat Jimmy Carter was a disaster.

In fact, one of our greatest environmental heroes was President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. And I have always admired my former governor, Russell Peterson of Delaware, for his courageous battles on behalf of conservation - and he too was of the GOP persuasion.

Conservationists should keep their minds open and support the candidate whose agenda is sound, regardless of party.

As David Baker, political director of Friends of the Earth, said, Bush threw down the gauntlet to Dukakis on the environmental issue. Now it's up to Dukakis to pick it up.

The details of the Bush and Dukakis environmental strategies should be made public. Each campaign should prepare white papers on national park expansion, wilderness, wolves in Yellowstone, off-shore drilling, off-road vehicles on public land, and a plethora of serious problems.

Let them hammer out their environmental policies. Let Utah politicians of both parties heed their leaders - they are speaking the language of the people.

When a national campaign enters its final heated months, the special interests clout. At last, the fighters at the top speak directly to the people whose vote they need. They're not courting the lobbyists or the political action committees, as the money is in the coffers by then.

There's a kind of purity, when rhetoric is stripped down to the essentials. Politicians are forced to talk about what's on the minds of the Americans.

At these times, environmental strategists should get it all down in black and white, saving up quotations for future use. Get as much as possible from both sides. Once the smoke has cleared, whoever wins must be held to his promises.

Trees add a growth ring every year. Environmental awareness grows more slowly: a new ring every four years.