SEEN from south-central Nebraska as summer begins, the earth seems a wondrous thing. Much of the landscape along the Platte River looks the way it must have 150 years ago when families filled small wagons with provisions, said good-bye to friends they'd never see again, and headed out to Oregon. That continuity of sight and sound is one of the main things that impresses travelers on a wagon train put together to mark the sesquicentennial of the Oregon Trail.
Aside from the interstate, which parallels wagon ruts still visible along the original trail, the main environmental impact of pioneer expansion across this part of the plains seems to be relatively benign, indeed bounteous: corn that will be well past knee high by this Fourth of July and hay fields.
That's not literally true, of course, as the coal-burning power plants on the horizon, the strip mines next door in Wyoming to feed those plants, and the strip malls on the outskirts of towns attest. But time spent along the Platte is a reminder that environment and development can fit harmoniously.
Just a year ago, representatives of some 170 nations gathered in Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - the Earth Summit - to address the world's most pressing problems as they affect the environment. There was plenty of wrangling over who is most at fault for global degradation - developing countries that have mouths to feed and economies to bolster no matter what the environmental cost or advanced countries that consume far more resources and produce far more pollutio n per person.
But there were important results as well. International conventions on preserving biodiversity and preventing global climate change were passed. Earth Summit negotiators worked out "Agenda 21," a massive plan to address environmental and development problems on into the 21st century.
The picture in the intervening year is mixed. The main UN agencies that pay for environmental programs around the world remain underfunded. Some rich countries that promised much in Rio de Janeiro appear to be backsliding. Japan, for example, recently passed watered-down environmental legislation after powerful industry-backed government agencies prevailed.
The recent meeting in Kenya of the UN Environment Programme's governing council was a replay of the bickering between nations of North and South over what is more important: saving species and preventing pollution or improving the economies and living standards of developing countries.
But there has been progress as well. Enough countries have ratified the biodiversity and climate-change conventions (or will by the end of the year) to put them into force.
A new 53-member UN Commission on Sustainable Development has been formed and is now holding its first meeting in New York. The commission is to monitor the progress under Agenda 21 and the other Earth Summit agreements. They key question remains, however: Will it be just another UN debating society or have real teeth?
The United States, which was seen as a laggard in Rio, appears to have reasserted international leadership on the environment.
President Clinton has appointed to head the UN Development Programme (a post traditionally held by an American) James Gustave Speth, a former chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and president of the World Resources Institute. Clinton also has created a new National Security Council post on global environmental affairs, a move that rightly recognizes environmental and natural resource issues as important to national security.
Business executives and environmentalists are among those drafting a White House plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Clinton also has named a 25-member Council on Sustainable Development, chaired jointly by a prominent environmentalist and a senior executive from Dow Chemical
At times it seems that progress on environmental protection moves about as slowly as those wagons along the Oregon Trail, which is about 12 miles a day. But a year after the Earth Summit, at least things appear to be going in the right direction.