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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of June 11 - 17, 2003


Founder of Earth Day warns of overpopulation

Express Staff Writer

More than three decades after founding Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, 87, remains profoundly passionate about his mission to raise public awareness of environmental issues.

Nelson, who served as governor of Wisconsin from 1959 to 1963 and a U.S. senator from 1963 to 1981, still works daily as a counselor for The Wilderness Society, the Washington D.C.-based environmental organization. As such, he is a tireless advocate for the preservation of natural resources.

In Sun Valley last week for a meeting of the National Governing Council of The Wilderness Society, Nelson served as the keynote speaker of the event’s celebratory dinner. He joked about partisan politics and even called upon the words of former Vice President Dan Quayle to get a few laughs from his audience.

One of the most humorous things he had ever heard, he said, was a comment made by Quayle during his four-year tenure in the George Bush Sr. administration. "It isn’t the pollutants that are harming the environment," Nelson quoted Quayle. "It’s the impurities in our air and water."

However, Nelson spoke with a more serious tenor last Friday in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express at Sun Valley Lodge. First and foremost, he warned of the perils of impending overpopulation and the tendency of elected officials of all political persuasions to avoid tackling key environmental issues.

Nelson said he believes the United States needs to act promptly to protect more natural areas, largely because public lands will be subject to explosive degrees of pressure in the next century from an ever-expanding population.

"We ought to preserve as much of the natural areas as we can because they’re disappearing rapidly," Nelson said.

He noted that there were 98 million people in the United States when he was born in Clear Lake, Wis. in 1916. The figure climbed to 280 million in 2000, and is expected to reach 500 million by around 2060, he said.

"The presidents and Congresses are not even discussing what’s going to happen to the United States," he said. "What will be left of the natural areas when we hit 500 million or a billion? There will be very few open spaces and places for wildlife."

Nelson said he is gravely concerned that the millions of people that now inhabit the nation are not using their natural resources in a sustainable fashion. "Creating sustainability is our greatest challenge," he said. "All the issues fold into that…

"At least the president and Congress ought to be conducting hearings on sustainability, but nobody’s talking about that."

The former senator said he has embarked on a campaign to encourage the White House to render a "State of the Resources" address every year, scheduled with the same regularity and fanfare as the "State of the Union" address.

"The state of the union depends a lot more on the state of the resource base than on what happens on Wall Street," he said. "The public’s right to know is at stake here… They’re entitled to know what’s happening."

Many communities in the West and Midwest are drawing too heavily on water resources, he noted, and the country by 2050 is facing a dramatic surge—from 217 million to 317 million—in the number of automobiles and light trucks that travel its ever-expanding system of roadways. "Where are you going to put 100 million more cars?" he asked.

Nelson said he believes representatives in Washington are generally more aware today of environmental issues than they were in the 1960s, when he hatched the idea for an Earth Day celebration. However, he said elected officials will have to become more "collegial" if they are to be effective in addressing the nation’s larger problems.

"I don’t believe an institution can survive very long if there is not a mutual respect among its members," he said.

Nelson, who worked on the Earth Day concept for seven years before it was inaugurated in 1970, said he believes the dialogue about environmental issues that was started in the early 1970s has fostered a greater awareness among the nation’s youth—a true cause for optimism. "We have to nurture a generation, and it’s happening."

Moreover, he said new generations of elected officials and citizens are employing more wisdom and common sense than they did in the last century. Gone are the days, he noted, of filling wetlands simply to build straighter roads.

"If we had been asking the question of ‘What are the consequences?’ we wouldn’t have done 95 percent of what we did," he said.


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