This past Sunday, April 22, the nation celebrated a day dedicated to the environment. However, the support for this recent Earth Day event has changed dramatically since that first celebration in 1970. The original Earth Day was truly a bipartisan celebration and a commitment by both Democrats and Republicans to protect the environment.
Today, the environment and the agency that was established in 1970 to protect the environment are under assault by the Trump Administration. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Scott Pruitt is quickly dismantling much of the work that has been accomplished by the EPA over the last 48 years. The most concerning change since the first Earth Day event is the turning of environment protection into a politically divisive wedge issue.
The original 1970 Earth Day celebration was chaired by a liberal Democrat, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and conservative Republican Congressman, Pete McClosky of California. It was President Richard Nixon, another conservative Republican, that put forth a thirty-seven-point plan to solve a variety of urgent environmental emergencies.
The EPA was established by Congress and it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in December, 1970. Nixon made it very clear in his State of the Union message that protecting the environment shouldn’t be treated as a partisan political issue.
“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later. Clean air, clean water, open spaces-these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be,” Nixon proclaimed.
Looking back to the establishment of the first Earth Day, we may be better able to chart a path to future environmental initiatives. There were several key events in the 1960s that ignited the publics’ interest in the environmental movement that led to the first Earth Day.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring led to the link between the use of the pesticide DDT and declining bird populations, most notably Bald Eagles. There were less than 500 pairs of Bald Eagles left in the lower 48 states in 1970 and they were on a path toward extinction. Spotting Bald Eagles in Iowa in 1970 was a rare event. Thanks to the bipartisan commitment made in the 1970’s there are now over 69,000 eagles in the lower 48 states and Iowa has nearly 200 pairs.
In 1969, there was a massive 3-million-gallon oil spill in Santa Barbara, California that fouled beaches and aroused opposition to coastal drilling and ocean crude oil transport. The Santa Barbara oil spill, the largest ever in history at the time, provided a major boost to coastline protection efforts.
The other major environmental catastrophe in 1969 was the burning of the Cuyahoga river. The river running through Cleveland was so polluted with chemicals and oil that it burst into flames. That served as pivotal environmental catastrophe that fostered a commitment to clean up America’s waterways. The river has been restored to a remarkably cleaner condition thanks to the 1970 initiatives.
Today, America faces other environmental challenges, just as it did in 1970. The threat of climate change is the greatest environmental challenge the world has ever faced. In the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans joined in finding solutions and implementing change. They didn’t make excuses about burdensome regulations or complain that we couldn’t afford to protect our environment. Today we must recall President Nixon’s call to action in 1970.
“America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is,” Nixon said, “literally now or never.
by Rick Smith