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MUCH HAS PROGRESSED, BUT THERE IS STILL MUCH TO DO AFTER MORE THAN 2 DECADES

This is a final column. But it is not the final word on the environment nor the end of the environmental challenge. For now, a column begun in the glow of the first Earth Day, nurtured through Love Canal and the "death" of Lake Erie and matured in the ghastly implications of a chemically contaminated Great Lakes is being put to rest after some 1,250 appearances.

I remind the media that at a time of high public interest in environmental issues, polls show that some are not serving their listeners, viewers or readers well. They cover a movement born in trouble, still in trouble, but one that will outlast us all as it struggles to preserve a planet for the children that will inherit it.

Many worthy groups -- from the Citizens Environmental Coalition to Greenpeace to the Seneca-Babcock Good Neighbor Committee to Environmental Advocates -- and thousands of citizens and dedicated leaders labor daily for the cause of a clean and healthy earth.

This region has been a focal point of virtually every environmental issue: the post-World War II wanton dumping of industrial chemicals that erupted into the worldwide corporate scandal triggered at Love Canal, the plague of toxic-waste discharges that have poisoned the five Great Lakes, the careless bypassing of raw sewage that destroyed beaches along Lake Erie, the steel plant smokestacks that cast a pall over our area and the "solution" for nuclear waste disposal that has left West Valley as its legacy.

But these events also support a strong government stepping in and passing Superfund legislation, Clean Water and Air acts and international water-quality agreements. Command and control are dirty words to conservatives but effective medicine for those who play environmental roulette.

At every turn today the issues and the problems overwhelm us as they multiply in numbers and complexity in our own back yard and across the globe and as we compromise our way into the next millennium with halfway solutions such as those wrought recently in Koyoto, Japan, on global warming.

The United Nations, with two environmental summits under its belt, is crippled by countries like the United States -- unwilling to pay its dues, yet laying claim to world superpower status by conservatives who don't see the global warnings or the need to examine and deal with exploding populations, by ignorant posturing against the issues of bio-diversity and other threats to species, water, air and land.

The International Joint Commission has voiced its concern for the health of people, wildlife and the Great Lakes, but will the United States and Canada listen and act on issues such as zero discharge, airborne toxic fallout and chemical disrupters?

Throughout three decades it has been strange to contemplate the conservation legacy of Theodore Roosevelt and other turn-of-the-century giants. Today's movement is a far cry from those who were concerned enough to preserve the Adirondacks "forever," to create national parks and seek a balance with nature.

New York was once a leader in all of this. Saving the Adirondacks and the Catskills, creating a department of environment and conservation, enacting pure-water bond acts, preserving open space. These were initiatives well ahead of the federal government. Today we struggle to fund the cleanup of toxic dumps, toy with logging state parks, do endless planning but have no funding for restoration of the Buffalo River or Eighteen Mile Creek.

Locally the challenges are immense: A new Peace Bridge pitted against waterfront parkland, transportation planners bent on bigger roads but ignoring mass transit, transforming toxic dumps into new industrial sites. Fortunately, both the city and county now have vigorous community groups and reactivated environmental commissions. A recent State of the Environment report by the Buffalo commission will provide new grounds for action.

Two things that would improve the region's environmental climate: A community round-table where citizens and experts meet periodically to discuss and debate issues in a non-confrontational, non-partisan spirit, and a periodic newsletter of events, issues and profiles similar to the Greensheet out of Albany.

Environment was once a non-partisan issue, but it is no longer. Nixon had the insight to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a bi-partisan wave of the future, but today we have senators vowing to kill a global climate treaty before even reading the text. For some, the environment has become photo opportunities at the Grand Canyon or brownfields or worse still, rallying cries by politicians attacking government while accepting corporate largess.

One measure of success is that during the glory years corporations awoke to a new reality, at least superficially. A great body of legislation has passed, and it is up to officials to implement and enforce. But that requires public vigilance, pressure and sometimes outrage every waking hour. Environmental groups come and go. We are blessed to be the home of Great Lakes United and to witness the emergence of new environmental life in Buffalo. New York has a number of environmental groups that are deserving not of lip service but of money.

Sadly, like the folks in Washington and Albany and Ottawa and Toronto who we like to criticize for environmental failings, we, too, are failing. Years and years after the first Earth Day, most of us go on living as usual, and in corporate America it's often business as usual.

We disdain public transport in favor of bigger gas guzzlers and wider highways. We toss our waste rather than recycling or composting.

One grows dispirited, many suffer burnout. But to give up is to lose; and that loss, unless corrected, will be our legacy to future generations -- generations that may find clear-cut old forests, lakes that are cesspools, rivers that run rancid, air that rots lungs and respiratory systems and emissions that threaten a child's health.

One is saddened, but one must not despair.

Barbara Ward, speaking at the first UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, said that once one has made a commitment, once one has felt the urgency to the environment, it is no passing fad; it will live within one forever.