Back in 1970, I was a cub just out of law school and working in my first real job with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, called a meeting on the Hill for staffers of national conservation organizations. I attended representing NWF not knowing what to expect. Senator Nelson laid out plans for the first Earth Day, which was celebrated on April 22, 1970.
Little did any of us realize that this would lead to Earth Day activities spreading across the globe for the next 48 years — and they’re still growing.
The despoliation of our natural world and the pollution of our air, water and land led to a wave of significant congressional actions under President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Measures enacted included the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, along with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These laws are still the bedrock of environmental protection in this country.
The enactment, funding and enforcement of environmental laws back then was not a partisan issue but a collaborative effort of leaders from both parties working together. No doubt, we are much better off environmentally than we were in the 1960s despite setbacks.
Since the first Earth Day, we have grown from a nation of 205 million people to one of 327 million people. This 59 percent increase in population — and the accompanying demands placed on our resources to satisfy food, commodity and housing needs — have led to losses of forests, wetlands and open space lands as well as difficulties in protecting our water and air resources from increasing pollution and toxic wastes.
The prime example for the decline of a treasured ecosystem is right here where we live — the Chesapeake Bay. Water quality problems and the decline of fisheries led to the signing of the first bay agreement in 1983. This led to the establishment of EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program which began with funding in President Ronald Reagan’s budget in 1984 of $10 million. The president noted in his January 1984 State of the Union Address that “Though this is a time of budget constraints, I have requested for EPA one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency. We will begin the long, necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and a special national resource — the Chesapeake Bay.”
While Gov. Harry Hughes, a Democrat, championed the first bay agreement and major bay initiatives, Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias, a Republican, pushed for the comprehensive study that still guides clean-up efforts. Many major initiatives have been enacted and billions of dollars have been spent to restore this national treasure. We have made strides particularly in cleaning up and removing bay-choking nutrients from wastewater treatment plants. However, most of the waters of the bay remain severely degraded as we have failed to adequately reduce pollutants from agriculture and from developed land stormwater runoff.
The consequences are grave: fishery collapses, including the greatly diminished oyster fishery, and serious infections in humans that come into contact with bay waters.
So what has changed since the first Earth Day? We know well how to resolve the bay’s decline and our nation’s increasing environmental problems, not the least of which is global warming. We have the technology and knowledge to resolve these problems, but the political will has faded. Advances in environmental progress have become extremely partisan issues as evidenced by the Trump administration budget, which would stop all funding of the formal EPA bay program, deleting $73 million and shuttering formal efforts to coordinate the restoration first funded by President Reagan in 1984.
Amendments approved in the U.S. House of Representatives forbid enforcement for clean-up goals set years ago for the six states and the District of Columbia in the bay watershed.
Beyond the Chesapeake, the critical laws enacted under President Nixon, including the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, are being emaciated and going unenforced. The EPA is under attack by its own administrator, who advocates for the oil and gas industry and other polluters and not for the environment.
Gone are the non-partisan efforts to protect our land, waters and air, and to put protection of the environment and public health at the forefront of our collective national ethos. If we are to make Earth Day mean anything, all of us blessed to live in the land of pleasant living will have to turn this ship around, sooner rather than later.
Gerald Winegrad (firstname.lastname@example.org) has worked to foster environmental stewardship for nearly 50 years including serving in the Maryland legislature for 16 years and leading efforts to restore the bay. He chaired the Senate Environment and Chesapeake Bay Subcommittee and taught graduate courses in bay restoration from 1988-2013.