by Whit Gibbons

November 11, 2002

Salem, Oregon, has passed a town ordinance that requires nude dancers to stay at least four feet away from the audience. And how, you ask, is this relevant to a column on ecology and the environment? I'm glad you asked that question.

The enticing tidbit on Oregon dance decorum is in a section of USA Today called "Across the USA." A snippet of news is given for every state, and it's frequently the kind of news we like to hear, that is, something negative or controversial, especially about a state other than our own. Noting where the emphasis lies in such reporting is informative, because the paper is a barometer of what Americans want to read about. I decided to see what proportion of the section over a two?day period dealt with environmental matters compared with nude dancing.

Ecology won, with a score of 12 articles on environmental issues to 1 on nude dancing. Nonetheless, my first feeling was one of disappointment. Not because so little was mentioned about nightclub etiquette, but because two years ago, 27 of the entries in USA Today involved the environment, more than twice as many as this time. Last time, environmental stories were reported from 22 different states; this year only 10 states were represented. Using this USA Today measure of what the public finds important, I wondered if the environment was now of less interest. I decided the results were a bit skewed because this time the elections were only a few days away. Also, the stories this time were for the most part more positive, which may mean that no juicy political scandals had been uncovered in the state the night before.

A sampling of the stories includes the following: the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection Wildlife Division is developing a Web site ( that will identify the best lookout points for motorists to observe some of the 400 species of birds that visit the state each year. The Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail is one response to the public's enthusiasm for watching wildlife and sounds to me like a reasonable use of state taxes. Also, Mississippi announced that a 1,600-acre nature preserve has been established along the Pascagoula River, increasing protection for this magnificent southern river and its rich biodiversity.

Another story I thought decidedly positive was that county commissioners in Washington County, Maryland, passed by a margin of one vote a ruling to place a one-year moratorium on large housing developments in rural areas. The intent was to protect farmland and water supplies from a neighboring county's population growth. According to the article, "the local chamber of commerce and homebuilders association" objected to the ruling because the prices of houses would rise and businesses would be reluctant to move to the area. As I said, this one sounded all positive to me.

Maryland had what I would consider a mix of good news and bad news in its report that lead poisoning in Baltimore children had dropped by 24%. I guess the drop is significant, but the fact that a problem that causes nervous system damage in children exists at all is disquieting. The mayor attributed the success to more stringent building requirements and funding to repair old houses with lead paint or lead fixtures. Anyone objecting to rigorous regulations for pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical intrusions into our lives might consider what we eventually found out about lead paint.

Some bad environmental news came from Wisconsin, where the Department of Natural Resources reported that zebra mussels, an invasive species that threatens native mollusks, have spread into the Wisconsin River. In a report that is clearly good news, one county is spending more than a million dollars to build the "largest recycling center in West Virginia," with plans to take advantage of the recycling needs of surrounding areas in the state.

If USA Today is an indicator of the public's interest, then the environment is important to Americans. In fact, it is apparently more important than nude dancing.

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