KERMIT the frog, the people of Aracta are discovering, was right: it's not easy being green. This former logging town 300 miles north of San Francisco, home to 16,000 earnest souls, is the first and only community in the US to be governed by the Green Party. What was once a rough town dedicated to felling ancient redwood forests is now a conservationist, and decidedly wacky, mecca.

The "Earth Flag" (the planet shown against a blue background) flies besides the Stars and Stripes outside City Hall. The town holds an annual All Species Day Parade ("Come as your favourite life form"). And a Green councillor shows off a bicycle-powered washing machine (snag: you sweat so much while peddling that a new load of clothes is ready to go in as soon as the old ones are clean).

Politics may have a different hue, but the council is finding that there are no easy answers even in "Ecotopia, USA". It recently got its recycled knickers in a twist over whether to approve an American Indian "Health Village". The pros said it was environmentally correct because it embraced both western and indigenous healing and grew herbal medicines and Indian foods. The antis protested that it would build over 18 acres of countryside.

The Greens' manifesto was no help. It variously pledged to "emphasise holistic health-care systems", to "give Native American culture equal weight with European culture", and "to prevent urban sprawl". The council ended up supporting the project, to cries of "appeasement". Whoever said green was a peaceful colour?

MIND YOU, many environmentalists over-romanticise the American Indians' relationship with nature. There's no doubt, as the saying goes, that they trod much more lightly on the earth than we do, but their sanctification as green paragons, living in total harmony with the natural world, suffers from some of the same hype as the burgeoning cult of St Diana of Versace.

The old Hollywood cliche of signalling with puffs of smoke from campfires is by no means all the story. Often a whole hillside would be set on fire to summon the tribe. And some contemporary observers recorded Indians in the Rocky Mountains setting giant trees alight for the hell of it: they exploded like fireworks.

The romanticists' creed is Chief Seattle's message, addressed in 1855 to the "Great White Chief in Washington" and endlessly quoted approvingly by Greens - including current Vice-Chief Al Gore. It's good resounding stuff: "If all the beasts were gone, man would die of a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to man happens to the beasts. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of Earth", and so on.

There's just one problem: Chief Seattle never said it. The words were written by a Hollywood screenwriter in 1972.

NOW Apaches in Arizona and New Mexico are endangering rare species by roadbuilding in defiance of US law and agitating for a nuclear-waste dump. Navajo Indians in the same states are felling ancient forests and calling for a uranium mine. Others meanwhile are fighting just as hard against these developments.

"There's always been a tension between our need for resources and our religious feelings about nature," says Rosita Whorl, a Tlingit Indian from Alaska who has made special study of issue. With unemployment at 50 per cent and average income below $5,000 on many reservations, it's a wonder there is a contest at all.

However, a coalition of tribes in Northern California is combining resources and religion. The Indians are creating a 3,900-acre wilderness park on the Pacific coast, ripping out roads and clearing streams clogged with logging debris, to return the land to how it was before the white man came. Non-Indians will be welcome to visit, but they will have to pay.

I AM always surprised by how much the West Coast is an island cut off by mountains and desert from the rest of the United States.

One old friend, a member of the last Republican cabinets, remembers how, when he came to live there, speaking grandly of his time in Washington, everyone assumed he had been in Seattle. It reminds me of the distinguished statesman who, after years in the news, retired to his old Oxford college. At his first dinner at High Table, an ancient don, who had never left the place, turned affably to him. "It must be nice," he quavered, "to be back at the centre of things."

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