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Are things getting better? Has the public lost interest?

These were questions posed, but never resolved at a recent dinner that included half a dozen persons sensitive to environmental issues.

While there have been gains, no one really felt the fight has been won. But both a former government administrator with two decades of experience in the field and an award-winning Canadian journalist felt the public is losing interest in a cause that has dominated public attention for more than two decades.

Item: Greenpeace is closing all of its ten regional offices in the United States and laying off 335 of its 400 U.S. staff members, citing a loss in membership and a drop in funding. Critics say the organization's era of guerrilla warfare has passed, and the problem was internal disorder. But the downsizing is viewed with regret by most.

Item: A survey of network newscasts shows a drop by two-thirds in the number of environmental stories carried between 1990 and 1996. Its a trend also reflected in newspapers.

Just prior to the dinner discussion, this columnist found mixed signals in a personal experience. A trip across North Carolina ending on the Outer Banks found appalling amounts of litter and roadside debris, a lack of recycling that leaves immense garbage bins overflowing despite twice-a-week pickups and a national seashore under threat.

On return, however, it was heartening to see two of the three Buffalo mayoral candidates actually discussing and campaigning on environmental and related issues, virtually unheard of in the past.

In North Carolina, the legislature rejected a proposed environmental bond act, while in New York State the first faltering steps are under way to implement a $1.75 billion bond act that, along with related programs, will put $500 million into environmental programs over the next year or so. Tactics like holding two hearings on two bond act provisos in two places on the same day in the Buffalo area are symbolic of the confusion.

There is some drying up of membership and funding of environmental groups, and both the mainline and grass-roots groups struggle daily to keep afloat. Diane Heminway, western director of the statewide Citizens Environmental Coalition, for example, recently sent out a slinger appealing for volunteers to staff the Medina office. (Call 798-0111.)

Yet, at the same time there is a new mood in Buffalo.

The city's Environmental Management Commission (EMC) has a full compliment of members, meets regularly and is tackling some tough issues.

Development of a new, $820,000 city master plan -- the first in two decades -- is heavily weighted toward environmental issues, and the city has already adopted an environmental protection plan to guide capital spending and development.

The Buffalo Institute of Urban Ecology, headed by Jay Burney, has support from the EMC to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for the city, and the Audubon Society has designated the city and Niagara River as an important bird corridor.

The city has a $7,000 grant to establish baseline environmental indicators against which progress or backsliding can be measured, and has two major grants for work toward converting toxic wastelands to useful property.

City officials have opened the doors to environmental audits by a University at Buffalo team. Mayor Masiello will formally accept a copy of a City Hall audit soon, possibly opening the door to additional work in schools, police, fire and parks offices.

All this emerges as a result of citizen energy in a city that -- with the exception of the Olmsted Parks movement -- largely slumbered in the backwaters of the environmental movement for years.

Any general appraisal of the movement is difficult. One telling indicator may be the turnout at the International Joint Commission meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont., in early November. The larger issue of Great Lakes restoration will be joined with local concerns about the Buffalo and Niagara rivers, and the lakes that abut our region. The IJC gas been a lightning rod for public demands for action, but some think it has lost its way.

The early Earth Days were a simpler time of black-and-white issues. They resulted in the institutionalization of the environment through far-reaching legislation at state and federal levels.

But the issues have become complex, and the once bipartisan nature of environment has degenerated into partisan bickering. One goes to a public hearing and comes away befogged in jargon, acronyms and technical mumbo jumbo. Greenwashing -- the environmental equivalent of brainwashing -- by corporations and trade associations further clouds and confuses the situation. A series of current radio ads taking aim at tough climate-control proposals is a good example of hot air replacing facts to support vested interests rather than the welfare of the planet.

So a quick answer? Environmental problems are treading water, and if, in fact, the public is lulled into complacency, the next Love Canal may be just around the corner.

The impact of the widespread use of pesticides -- up 31 percent in five years on food grown in California -- will be discussed at a forum conducted by The Pesticide Project, a group dedicated to reducing risks. It will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. Oct. 9 in UB's Center for Tomorrow on the Amherst Campus.

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