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Wednesday, April 21, 2004


Earth Day inaugurated green power

Remembering the holiday’s roots

"The state’s environmental groups really receive a lot of support from this community. If it weren’t for the support from the Wood River Valley, much of the state’s environmental efforts would not be as successful."

LYNNE STONE, Executive director of the Boulder White Clouds Council

Express Staff Writer

Earth day means many things to different people.

For some, it’s a time to remember the environmental woes of yesterday or to ponder the environmental battles of today. For others, it’s a time to think about the great, green mountains to climb tomorrow.

But for former Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day, it was created to grab the attention of the country’s political leaders.

Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains was targeted in the early 1970s for a molybdenum mine. Efforts of Idaho environmentalists helped stave off the proposed open-pit mine, and was a cornerstone of Idaho’s early environmental movement, said Lynne Stone, executive director for the Boulder White Clouds Council. Courtesy photo

Thursday marks the 34th anniversary of the first Earth Day, a day that was successful in bringing environmental awareness into the political limelight and to grass roots communities throughout the nation. First held on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was modeled after the anti-Vietnam "teach-ins" of the 1960s.

About 20 million Americans participated in the environmental rallies and demonstrations on the first Earth Day. Now, more than 60 million people worldwide celebrate earth day each spring.

In a 1990 speech titled "History of Earth Day," Nelson recalled the origin of the nation-wide event.

"The idea for Earth Day occurred to me in late July 1969 while on a conservation speaking tour out West," he said. "At the time there was a great deal of turmoil on the college campuses over the Vietnam War.

"Protests, called anti-war teach-ins, were being widely held on campuses across the nation. I read an article on the teach-ins, and it suddenly occurred to me, why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment? That was the origin of Earth Day."

Nelson explained that he was troubled because the country’s leading officials—"the economic power structure of the nation"—and the press paid almost no attention to environmental issues. The state of the environment was a "non-issue" in the politics of the country, he said.

In 1969, while in Seattle, Nelson announced there would be a national environmental teach-in—the first Earth Day—sometime in the spring of 1970.

"The response was dramatic," he said. "It took off like gangbusters."

By December 1969, Nelson opened a separate Washington, D.C., office to accommodate the swarm of inquiries he received.

"Earth Day achieved what I had hoped for," Nelson continued in his speech. "The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake up the political arena. It was a gamble, but it worked."

Each spring, U.S. Forest Service officials are faced with the daunting task of cleaning up trash that was left behind over the winter or during the previous camping season. This campsite along Trail Creek is the kind of mess the proponents of Earth Day are striving to clean up or, better yet, avoid altogether. Express photo by Willy Cook

According to John Carlisle, director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at the National Center for Public Policy Research, the first Earth Day is generally considered to be the beginning of the modern-day environmental movement.

Although several environmental disasters in the 1950s and 1960s began to bring environmental issues to the fringe of the mainstream, Carlisle said he believes that the first Earth Day "galvanized" environmental awareness across the U.S. in the early 1970s.

"There had been movement in that direction in response to Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire and a large oil spill off the coast of California in the late ’60s, but the Earth Day event is what really helped get the attention of Capitol Hill," Carlisle said.

Nelson credits efforts at grass roots levels for Earth Day and environmental successes, efforts made in communities like the Wood River Valley.

Although the first time valley residents observed Earth Day is difficult to surmise, the Environmental Resource Center fired up its first Earth Day celebration in 1992. Environmental awareness in the Wood River Valley has greatly increased since then, said ERC Executive Director Craig Barry.

The ERC works on a grass roots level to increase awareness of the natural world and human impacts on it. This work has resulted in a well-established, valley-wide recycling program, consistent events that foster a better understanding of the environment and informative forums covering emerging issues like noxious weeds, living with wildlife and water quality.

"I’m amazed and impressed by the awareness, energy and concern Wood River Valley residents have for the environmental issues facing this area," said ERC Program Director Ben Mackay.

Conservation activist Lynn Stone pointed out that the Sawtooth National Recreation Area—formed in 1972—is one of the greatest conservation achievements experienced locally in the past 30 years. The 756,000-acre area was set aside by Congress in 1972 to prevent development of a proposed molybdenum mine on Castle Peak and the spreading subdivision of the Sawtooth Valley’s lands.

The Sawtooth Valley is still relatively undeveloped and Castle Peak still towers, without mining’s scars, in the White Cloud Mountains.

Stone applauded the Wood River Valley for its conservation efforts and support of environmental projects state-wide.

"The state’s environmental groups really receive a lot of support from this community," she said. "If it weren’t for the support from the Wood River Valley, much of the state’s environmental efforts would not be as successful."


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