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Earth Observance: The Day Politics Stood Still

It has been 15 years since the birth of the environmental movement in America. With the first Earth Day observance, in April, 1970, as the catalyst, the environmentalists went on to demonstrate their new political clout at the polls that June. Now, with environmental concerns prominent in the American conscience, the early movers and shakers of the movement reflect on their progress and challenges ahead. This, the first of three articles, focuses on two politicians who were early environmentalists.

May 23, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

When he was a child, Denis Hayes, 40, the one-time wunderkind of America's environmental movement, recalls, "Among educated people environment was the thing other than heredity that determined personality."

Oh, perhaps one's maiden aunt affected British walking shoes, cooked her vegetables right with Adele Davis and went on weekend hikes with some fringy outfit called the Sierra Club.

But in those days it would have been difficult to find a quorum for a lively debate on pollution, recycling or energy conservation.

Then, in June of 1970, a funny thing happened to some U.S. senators on their way to reelection. They were defeated after being targeted by a volunteer coalition whose numbers included the activists who six weeks earlier--on April 22--had staged the first Earth Day, the event that launched the environmental movement nationwide.

It was the start of the greening of America.

Earth Day, with 10 million students involved, with its mock funerals for the internal combustion engine, its attack on polluters and offshore oil drillers and those who make pesticides and non-biodegradable detergents, spurred environmental legislation, spawned watchdog agencies and made environmentalists a major political force.

Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, was the man who conceived the idea of a national environmental teach-in and dubbed it Earth Day. A decade later, in 1980, he was defeated in his bid for a fourth term (despite, not because of, his environmental leanings, he contends) but today, at 68, he carries on the environmental battle as counselor of the Washington-based Wilderness Society.

Nelson remembers well: "I was out in Santa Barbara to speak at a water conference, it was in late August of 1969, when I conceived the idea of a nationwide environmental conservation demonstration. Then I went to Berkeley to speak and there were all of these Vietnam teach-ins going on and it suddenly dawned on me--why not a nationwide teach-in on the environment?

"I checked it out in Berkeley and they thought it was a great idea so I announced it in a speech in Seattle on Sept. 9. I ran it out of my office for the first two or three months," until Common Cause offered space. Soon, Nelson brought on board Stanford's Denis Hayes to run the Earth Day office.

"Those large demonstrations of millions of people forced the issue into the political dialogue of the country," he said, "and that was my sole purpose. Nobody--governors, or senators, or the President--was paying any attention to this issue.

"The public was interested; the politicians weren't. In the 1968 campaign--Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace--not a single reference was made to the environment. Hubert was good on the issue and was the main sponsor of the Wilderness Act of 1964 but he never gave a speech on it. Why? The why was he didn't think there was any political interest.

" . . . Earth Day got the politicians' attention."

But, in Nelson's view, it did something else equally important: It led to "the development of an educated and concerned public, people of all age groups, that understood that this issue affects quality of life. Until then, you couldn't get support for doing tough things."

Nelson counted the victories: The Clean Air Act of 1970, massive appropriations for waste treatment plants, the attack on hazardous waste dumps, the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the banning of DDT, "which was destroying lots of things including the peregrine falcons and the bald eagle."

Then he added quickly, "We have a long way to go on air pollution, water pollution, control of pesticides. We've only made a beginning in cleaning up hazardous waste dumps. A program was launched and it got growing broad public support and then suddenly we got an Administration in 1980 that didn't believe in it, so they reversed everything. We'll be a long time recovering."

Enthusiasm to Dismantle

Nelson views former Interior Secretary James Watt as an unqualified "disaster," a man who "moved with great enthusiasm to dismantle all the achievements of the previous secretaries of the Interior. And the damage he's done will be lasting. The whole Administration--Anne Burford (since fired) in charge of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), was someone whose main purpose was to frustrate the intent of Congress, and she was very successful. They fired all kinds of top people and it'll be several years before the EPA gets back the professional status it had before. Watt did the same over in Interior and the same thing has been going on over in the Forest Service."

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