Earth Day our chance to help clean up our act

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The bald eagle, the U.S. national bird, was removed from the endangered species in 1996 thanks to environmentalists inspired by books such as Rachel Carson's 1962 classic, "Silent Spring." Photo courtesy Ray Harden

Saturday, April 22 is Earth Day. This is a national day of observance to reflect on the earth’s environmental issues and think about what we can do to help solve some of the problems.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, “Silent Spring,” is considered to be the beginning of the modern environmental movement. However, the first Earth Day was started by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.

In the late 1960s, the public was becoming more concerned about the increasing deterioration of the environment. The air over many American were filled with smog. Animals were becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Rivers were choked with raw sewage and other pollutants.

The event that provided the greatest impetus for environmentalists was the fire that started on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 1969. During the peak of the fire, flames were reported as high as five stores.

Before 1970, pollution problems were not in the political domain. But Sen. Nelson wanted to put them in the political limelight. He worked for several years to get the first Earth Day set as a national event. It was very successful. It is estimated that more than 20 million people participated in grassroots demonstrations around the country to show their concern about the environment.

Environmental problems are now part of our national and state politics. Agencies are set up at all levels of government to deal with these issues, and there are many lobbyists and special interest groups that want to influence the decisions made by politicians.

Because of the success of Earth Day, there is worldwide awareness of the environmental crisis. Countries around the world are taking steps to improve the quality of the environment. In Europe, Green Party representatives are in every parliament, and even China has taken measures to clean up the nation’s air and water pollution problems.

In the U.S., many laws were passed by congress in the 1970s to address public concerns. The 1970s has been called the “Decade of the Environment.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 with the mission to protect the environment and public health. The Clean Air Act was also passed in 1970 to control industrial and auto emissions. The pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, along with the passage of the Clean Water Act and many other laws that regulate various forms of pollution.

Photo courtesy Ray Harden
Photo courtesy Ray Harden

Progress has been made. The air and water is cleaner today. In 1972 only 36 percent of the nation’s streams were safe for fishing and swimming. Now 60 percent are safe for such uses. Unfortunately, Iowa lags behind other states in cleaning up our rivers and streams. Several endangered species of animals are making a good recovery. In 1996 the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list.

Recycling programs were one of the first steps taken by local governments to reduce landfills, and bottle bills were passed by man states, requiring a deposit on beverage containers. Iowa was one of the first half-dozen states to enact such a law. Many groups in Iowa want to expand the law to include more beverage containers and increase the amount of deposit, but Iowa’s bottle bill has not been changed since it was passed.

On Earth Day, think about what you can do to improve the environment. Plant a tree. Put up a birdhouse. Recycle trash. Plant a buffer strip along a stream, or sow a grass waterway.
Many actions are planned for this year’s Earth Day. Mason City, Denison and Des Moines will hold citywide cleanup programs.

In Dallas County, the Perry Lions Club will pick up trash along Iowa Highway 141. Seventh grade students from the ADM School District will take a field trip to the Neil Smith Prairie east of Des Moines. They will be studying the tall grass prairie ecosystem and prairie restoration with the Dallas County Conservation Staff.

One international group is promoting the planting of trees, and the U.S. EPA is sponsoring a food waste reduction program.

Progress has been made in many areas, but there is still a lot of improvement needed. You can also write to your state and federal representatives about your environmental concerns, because every major environmental decision is a political decision.

The volume of trash pulled annually from the Raccoon River by volunteers shows there is still room for environmental progress in Iowa.
The volume of trash pulled annually from the Raccoon River by volunteers shows there is still room for environmental progress in Iowa. Photo courtesy Ray Harden

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