Have you ever thrown a party and worried that no one would show up? When the first Earth Day was announced, in the fall of 1969, those of us involved had that worry — but luckily not for long. That day — April 22, 1970 — millions of Americans participated in events virtually everywhere across this country — joining in to clean up a riverbank, attend a rally, build a nature trail or organize a recycling program.
The environmental movement was not born that day, but the extraordinary outpouring of people from all walks of life gave the cause of conservation, of caring for our planet, a huge step up as a priority for Americans and, therefore, as a priority for those we elect to make and administer our laws, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Invigorated by the public enthusiasm and concern around that first Earth Day, politicians responded — the Environmental Protection Agency was established and, with the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, given powerful new tools to curb pollutants that were fouling our environment and threatening our health. The National Environmental Policy Act gave the environment a seat at the table in the office of the president, and it empowered ordinary citizens with new tools to hold federal agencies accountable for the environmental impacts of their projects. The Endangered Species Act was passed. All were signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
These actions did not arise spontaneously, but grew from important seeds planted in earlier landmarks such as the founding of the national parks beginning with Yellowstone in 1872, and the progressive conservation crusade of Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century. President Lyndon Johnson successfully pressed Congress to enact the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which provided funding to protect local, state and federal parks and forests.
We can be grateful for all of this progress — laws that provide legal foundation for a running start, at long last, in seriously addressing the grave peril of global climate change.
We can be grateful, too, that in less than half a century, we have proven that even on complex conservation issues, the public — you and I — have a vital role to play, along with the experts who staff our environmental agencies.
The idea of public involvement in such decisions was a new thing when Congress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964. A landmark of world conservation progress, this law embodied the promise of strongest possible legal protection — by act of Congress — for the wildest, most natural parts of our national forests, national parks, and other federal lands. And it gave the people a voice in these decisions, first, as agencies like the U.S. Forest Service considered what lands to suggest for this protection, and then through our elected representatives in Congress — for only Congress can make the decision to extend this protection to additional lands.
The power of the people in these decisions has been evidenced over the past 45 years, as Congress has passed well over 100 laws designating additional wilderness areas. Just last month, the hard work of local conservation groups was rewarded when President Barack Obama signed a law adding over 2 million acres, across nine states, to our National Wilderness Preservation System. Some of these are wild treasures with household names like California's Eastern Sierra, Mount Hood in Oregon, Zion National Park in Utah and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Some are lesser-known gems, like parts of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest, the Monongahela in West Virginia, Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan.
Protecting some of our original Earth — just as it is — helps keep our air and water clean, provides unsurpassed opportunities for hiking, hunting, camping and exploring, and preserves places for solitude and solace.
This Earth Day is a time to reflect on such progress, even as we work to meet the next challenges, such as global climate change and how to protect the most vulnerable of our remaining public wild lands. Thanks to our long and bipartisan tradition of public involvement in conservation work, we have every reason for confidence that we the people can make a lasting difference for the future of our planet, and of the future generations who will inherit it.
Doug Scott is policy director for the Campaign for America's Wilderness. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he helped organize the first Earth Day. Readers may write to him at 122 C St., NW, 240, Washington, D.C. 20001.
© Doug Scott