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ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES STILL RESONATE, BUT PASSION IS GONE

Is the environmental movement dead?

As Earth Day, observed every April 22, approaches, one must consider anew the state of the environment amid the global issues of war, poverty, human suffering and global business as usual.

Perhaps the greatest enemy is indifference.

The environment has had some high points, the euphoria of the first few Earth Days in the early 1970s, when the movement was on top of the nation's agenda, a must for government leaders, politicians, civic leaders and community activists.

The movement left its imprint on society, on government, on the economy. It was embedded into corporate operations, religious activities, civic life, political agendas.

Hundreds of organizations sprung to life to meet a variety of challenges, from corporate dumping at Love Canal to toxic contamination of the Great Lakes, from sewage contamination of thousands of lakes and streams from the Niagara River to the entire Atlantic coastline, from acid rain falling on the Adirondacks to steel plant and electric generating stations that fouled the air we were breathing.

It was a wonderful, populist uprising that caught government and industry by surprise and off guard. Response ranged from simply the need to make new government regulations to some who felt the need to meet the challenge of a changing world, one endangered by health-threatening, ecological destruction.

Pollution, whether it be the air, the water, the land, suddenly was on everyone's radar screen. The media was full of it, the man in the street was alarmed and the politicians were scrambling to enact a heretofore unheard of series of measures to protect the Earth.

This nation had a touch of it early in the 20th century when Theodore Roosevelt charged into the issue, resulting in creation of national parks and protection of resources. New York State was well ahead of the game, declaring by constitutional fiat that huge portions of the Adirondacks would be "Forever Wild."

Much has been done, much remains to be done, but the heady fervor for change, for preservation, for pure waters and clear skies that dominated this nation and by example much of the world has lost its punch today.

The victories of the 1970s, the 1980s and into the '90s are gone, passed over by other events and a tired legion of environmentalists. The big 10, the powerhouses with national agendas remain, but bit by bit, the grass-roots groups are going by the wayside, having in some cases achieved their goals and disbanded or simply grown tired and discouraged.

Love Canal, for example, spurred hundreds of small toxic dump fighters from Times Beach in Missouri to CECOS mountain in Niagara Falls.

But hundreds of the dumps are still there, and the pace both in New York State and with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has slowed to a crawl as other issues push the mess in our own back yards into the background. The spirit of Lois Gibbs lives on, but dimly.

For Western New York, achieving clean air was a mixed blessing. Bethlehem Steel Corp. fouled the air and people's lives from Lackawanna to Batavia and beyond. In one of the ironies of the environmental movement, the plant closed and the air improved. A combination of enforcement and industrial shame resulted in places like the Buffalo River being better, not perfect, today. Many feel the environmental movement was one of the factors driving industry offshore.

The environmental movement plateaued early in this decade. Led by a seriously flawed administration in Washington today, the lip service paid by the EPA is painful. The Interior Department we rely on to protect our vast Western landscape appears to be no more than an agency to collect funds for the GOP. The Bush gang trod somewhat lightly in the first term, but given a second lease on life appears ready to run roughshod and the voters deserve what they get.

The movement is not dead, but reeling, moribund and discouraged. A few hearty souls remain active and committed and bless them. But for the majority of Americans, it appears somewhat doubtful that another Love Canal, another nuclear dump like West Valley, a major asthma epidemic, logging in Allegany State Park would draw more than a ho hum.

One would think that given 25 years of serious assaults on the planet, the movement would be so embedded in people's minds and souls that further attacks would draw outrage. But the polluter has learned also, to go slow, go easy, go sly, and with that approach has an even chance of getting away with it.

Environmental concern, while a part of out social conscience, is not yet a way of life, a deeply held belief. It has changed our lives for the better, but far short of the needs of a civilized society. The issues are fading, the interest is waning, the movement is tired.

But it lives, and the hope for our planet is that it will not die, that a reawakening is around the corner. And that is why Earth Day is important.

Paul MacClennan is a former enviromental reporter for The Buffalo News.