The coronavirus pandemic is injuring our economy as it takes lives and disrupts routines, but it has a benefit. Thanks to warming spring weather millions of Americans are venturing outdoors to hike trails or sit on sunny porches. Many look skyward to see bald eagle winging overhead.
A half century ago that would not have been predicted. Eagle’s bodies were saturated with the insecticide DDT, rendering their eggshells so fragile that they broke when a parent attempted incubation. Naturalists predicted the extinction of our national bird.
It didn’t happen thanks, in part, to Earth Day. On that remarkable April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, many of them college students, gathered to learn about the environment and press governments for change. Inspired by then Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was a worldwide effort involving a billion people in 190 countries.
Earth Day’s memory is bold and pleasant. It happened just after the close of the turbulent 1960s when our nation seethed with polarized anger and violence. The deadly and increasingly hopeless Vietnam War lingered on. It bitterly divided Americans as brave soldiers came home in body bags. Students on my campus, the University of Idaho, and many other colleges were gripped with anger and frustration.
As a fishery management major, I, and other College of Natural Resources majors, led campus wide environmental discussions on Earth Day. Math, psychology, and other class topics were suspended so students and faculty could focus on the environment and how to achieve positive action.
At a time of extreme national angst Earth Day was magical. Peaceful, positive, and nonpartisan, it created cooperation that brought diverse people together to work for a cleaner world. Politicians listened and banned DDT, crafted the Endangered Species Act, bolstered the Clean Air Act and passed the Clean Water Act. Significant environmental legislation was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon but support came from both parties. Locally Earth Day inspired two women to found the Indian Creek Nature Center.
Earth Day’s warm glow was short lived. Only 12 days later, students protesting the war were gunned down at Kent State, and the mood on campuses turned rancorous. Some students, cordial on Earth Day, greeted me with obscene gestures as I crossed campus in my army uniform. An egg arched out of a group of protesters, soiling my uniform. It’s an indelible memory.
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Eventually the war ended but happily Earth Day’s impacts continued. With DDT gone bald eagles began a gradual recovery, Lake Erie transformed from a sewer into an outstanding walleye fishery. The air got cleaner, improving human health, and nearly everywhere people worked to reduce their negative footprint on the earth.
April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and its importance has never been greater. Our president and other politicians, mostly Republicans, are trashing environmental laws and regulations at the expense of human health and natural beauty. Climate change poses an enormous threat as rivers run dirty. Earth Day 50 is an opportunity tell politicians its degradation is intolerable.
Rich Patterson is a graduate of the University of Idaho and served as a fishery biologist in Alaska before embarking on a 39 year career as a nature center director.