In the 1960s, you could count on one hand the number of US senators who called themselves "environmentalists." The environment was not on the national political agenda, so no one was paying much attention to it. I thought it was important to change that.
My first try flopped. In 1963 I proposed that President Kennedy highlight this issue on a national tour. But the very day the tour began,the Senate ratified the nuclear test ban treaty, and that's what the press covered.
For the next six years I tried to come up with another idea. One day in 1969 while flying from southern California to Berkeley, I read a magazine article about college "teach-ins" to mobilize opposition to the Vietnam War. It occurred to me that a similar approach might produce what I felt we needed: a nationwide grass-roots demonstration of concern for the environment - a demonstration big enough to shake up and wake up the political establishment.
I proposed this idea in a speech in Seattle that fall, and the public response exceeded my wildest expectations. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans turned out for what was called "Earth Day." American Heritage magazine called it "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy. American politics and public policy would never be the same again."
I certainly would never have predicted that 29 years later we would still be marking Earth Day every April and that it would have become an international event.
This shows how deeply people feel about the health of our planet. They know that their quality of life is tied to the cleanliness of our air and water, the health of our forests, and the condition of the rest of our natural world.
We're even seeing greater awareness that environmental health and economic health go hand in hand. How often have you heard political and business leaders and others who should know better vacuously assert they "are for the environment if it doesn't cost jobs?"
A few years ago, when steps were taken to preserve remnants of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, one timber-industry executive warned that the result would be a "new Appalachia." Instead, the region's unemployment rate dropped to the lowest levels in a generation. Ask a fisherman if there's a connection between the quality of the water he fishes and his income.
The fact is the wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity. Take this resource base away and all that is left is an economic wasteland. In the Rockies, the Southeast, northern New England, and elsewhere, it is becoming clearer every day that resource extraction is not the economic engine it used to be - and in many cases jeopardizes the potential of local economies trying to turn to new business.
Peering into the next century, I am optimistic that we will rise to our environmental challenges. The rapid growth of environmental education has produced younger generations with a strong conservation ethic. More and more, the business world is responding to public demand for cleaner operations and products that are environmentally responsible. Last fall, from coast to coast, voters cast ballots for the protection of green space. While there are always some discouraging trends, I see more positive than negative.
One of the great advantages we have in this country is our unrivaled collection of public lands. More than a quarter of the American land base, nearly 1 million square miles, is jointly owned by every American citizen. At birth, we receive a deed to that acreage. The list includes the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Everglades, and many wondrous places most people have never heard of.
Preserving the uniqueness of this huge estate of natural landscapes should be a first priority of our society. Earth Day is a good time for Americans to send our representatives in Congress the message that we want our natural heritage protected - forever.
*Gaylord Nelson is the founder of Earth Day. A former US senator, he is counselor of The Wilderness Society, in Washington, D.C.