IN 1998, faced with worsening contamination of the Willamette River, Governor Kitzhaber organized the Willamette Restoration Initiative. At the time, environmentalists cheered when hand-picked representatives sat down with industry magnates. But now, with a deadline for solutions looming, it seems as if the chosen environmentalists have been sucked into an unhelpful bureaucracy. No real solutions for cleaning up the dying river have emerged, say local conservationists. And, worse yet, contend these detractors, the two groups chosen to represent ecological interests don't have the audacity to stand up for their interests.

"Saving the Willamette will require gutsy actions by people with vision," says Don Francis, who founded Willamette Riverkeeper in 1996. Francis contends that foot-dragging by the chosen environmental groups threatens to make the initiative "just another nail in the Willamette's coffin." Francis grew up near the river and distinctly remembers being warned to throw back any fish that he ever caught because it would be contaminated. Since then, the river only has worsened.

Francis contends that the environmental groups simply are not pressing hard enough for quantifiable targets. Instead, he says, they are rolling over to bland and toothless guidelines advocated by the Initiative's industry and agriculture representatives.

Environmentalists representing two organizations, Oregon Environmental Council and Defenders of Wildlife, sit alongside representatives from riverside businesses and a former chief lobbyist for the Oregon Forest Industries Council. Francis worries that the appointed environmental groups are far too concerned with jeopardizing their political connections to push the other members of the Initiative.

Karen Lewotsky of Oregon Environmental Council concedes that "we haven't gotten down to the nitty-gritty."

But, believes Lewotsky, just the fact that dialogue has been established among seemingly opposing interests represents progress. She is wary of doing anything that might scuttle the program. Even so, Lewotsky ruefully admits that they may have "nice-guyed ourselves to death." She claims that her group has pushed the board to adopt specific benchmarks but, cautious of industry's interests, have shied away from actually designating specific goals.