Conservation is Strong on this 44th Earth Day

Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson told President Kennedy in 1963 that while the public is “aware that all around them, here and there, outdoor assets are disappearing, they really don’t see the awful dimension of the catastrophe” that prominent conservationists of that time, such as Rachel Carson, were pointing out.

In 1969, after a devastating oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, Senator Nelson had an idea: a teach-in on the environment; and on April 22, 1970, Earth Day began.

Boy, did the country learn. 

The years after the first Earth Day saw the passage of many major environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Nestucca Bay NWR beckons in this photo from 2009. Credit: USFWS

So, on each Earth Day anniversary, we momentarily pause in our individual and societal quests for greater affluence and give thanks for the many blessings of a healthy environment: clean drinking water; rivers, lakes and oceans that are swimmable and fishable; air that is breathable; open spaces that support outdoor recreation and a vibrant recreation economy; habitat that provides protection from storms and floods … the list goes on.

But it is not always easy to support conservation the 364 other days of the year when other, equally weighty issues are on the forefront of Americans’ minds – like war, health care or the economy.

Senator Nelson said, in 1970, at Earth Day ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin: “The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man.”

We have many events to celebrate Earth Day.

Every day, year after year, the employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make that commitment for the fish, plants, wildlife and habitats that help make our nation exceptional.

We’re working to solve the crisis in the prairies as more and more grassland – vital wildlife habitat – is converted to cropland. We’re rebuilding areas in the Northeast devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and making sure those areas are better able to withstand dangerous storms in the future. In the Southwest, we have spent years finding the best way to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken, and the range-wide plan – developed with our state partners and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies – is testament to that.

Unless we all work hard to see what’s good in the world, it can be disappointing that we are still dealing with some of the same conservation issues that led to Earth Day’s founding 44 years ago.

Certainly, some of those issues remain and new challenges have arisen – like climate change. But we have seen much success. I read an article the other day about Ron Bell, the refuge manager at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, who just retired after 40 years of service. Thanks to his experience, the article says, Ron can say for sure our programs do work. He specifically noted eagles. “We’ve gone from a population that was considered endangered and threatened, and now we have a good number of eagles, even nesting,” he told the reporter.

Ron is lucky. The long-term commitment Sen. Nelson talked about means some of us might not be able to witness our successes because they, too, can take a while.

Usually, that’s OK – conservation is all about the long term. But we don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to building connections with nature.

As our country becomes more and more urban, many Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to feel connected to and experience nature.  People who view wildlife as an abstraction are much less likely to understand and support conservation than those who have developed a personal connection with the outdoors.

To make conservation relevant to our changing demographic, we need to work hard to engage urban audiences, particularly youth, to show them the importance of nature, wildlife and healthy habitats. To do that, we need partners – particularly nontraditional partners who know how to reach new audiences with the message of sustained commitment toward conservation and improving our environment.

This is why I am particularly excited about a memorandum of understanding (MOU) I will be signing tomorrow with Phi Beta Sigma, a fraternity with a rich history that includes membership by the renowned scientist and leading historical figure George Washington Carver. Our collaboration will be a great step forward in engaging young, urban audiences, and I hope the first of many more like it.

On this 44th Earth Day we can see that our work, our love, our duty – conservation – is strong and successful. Our challenge is to carry on that great legacy for all Americans, and to that I am personally committed!

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Last updated: August 31, 2011