In 1970, many of America's rivers and lakes were dying. Smog and toxic waste threatened countless communities. Our wilderness system contained only 12 million acres. And our cherished national symbol -- the bald eagle -- was on the brink of extinction.
At least one member of Congress, Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson, was frustrated by the sense that the nation's elected leaders were far behind the American people in environmental awareness. He felt the country needed a demonstration of environmental concern dramatic enough to wake up the political establishment.
It was his idea to stage an event modeled on the anti-war teach-ins of the 1960s. On April 22, 1970, some 20 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day -- a response that exceeded his wildest expectations.
This week, 500 million people around the world are expected to participate in activities marking the 30th Earth Day. Here in Washington, the occasion will be marked by a major event on the national Mall, calling for action on global warming.
Elsewhere around the country, a wide variety of activities marking Earth Day are planned. Residents of Trenton, Mich., will hold a prayer vigil outside a dirty, coal-fired power plant. Elementary school students in Seattle will present their hopes for the environment to local elected officials. And in St. Louis, 150 members of The Earth Angels, an environmental group of "at-risk" 7- to 12-year-olds, will take part in their city's Earth Day Festival. In addition to planting 300 trees, they will unveil a 3-D display of 79 everyday objects that convey different ways to save the Earth.
In Italy, more than 2,000 streets around the country will be closed to raise awareness of air pollution and the need for better transportation options. And in South Africa, residents will call for a national transition to cleaner fuel production and clean energy technologies.
A lot has changed in the 30 years since Sen. Nelson came up with the idea of Earth Day. Twice as many of our rivers and lakes are safe for fishing and swimming. Millions more Americans enjoy clean air and safe drinking water. Many of our worst toxic dumps have been cleaned up. Nearly 100 million more acres are permanently protected as wilderness. And the bald eagle thrives once again.
In 1995, Sen. Nelson's efforts to protect our planet earned him the nation's highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When my husband bestowed the award, he said of the senator, "As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event -- the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act." In fact, Congress passed some 20 major environmental laws in the decade following April 22, 1970.
There are, of course, those committed to undermining environmental progress. In 1995, certain members of Congress dedicated themselves to repealing key provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, and to slashing support for environmental enforcement and toxic cleanups. And in each of the past three years, they have pursued their efforts to sacrifice public lands to private interests.
But each time, the President and his administration have stood firm and stopped them.
In the last seven years, this administration has achieved an unparalleled record on the environment, including adoption of the strongest air quality protections ever, and the cleanup of three times as many Superfund sites as the two previous administrations combined. Just this week, to mark the anniversary of Earth Day, the President traveled to California, where he announced the creation of a new 350,000-acre national monument to protect the groves of giant sequoia trees in the Sequoia National Forest.
Of course, if we care about the planet we leave for our children and grandchildren, our job is not done.
The President's budget includes an unprecedented proposal that would ensure ongoing support for his Lands Legacy initiative -- money that would help states and communities protect wildlife and local green spaces, support federal efforts to save natural and historic treasures, and expand efforts to protect ocean and coastal resources.
And we must act now to tackle the greatest environmental challenge of the new century -- global warming. The President has proposed funding to develop clean energy sources at home and abroad, and to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. If we fail to take immediate action, the President warned in his State of the Union Address, "deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will flood, and economies will be disrupted."
The American people, who have learned over the course of the last seven years that a healthy environment and a healthy economy can go hand in hand, care about these issues. Now, it is up to Congress to listen and respond. As the world celebrates the 30th anniversary of Earth Day this week, let's hope that our elected officials get the message: We want our planet protected -- forever.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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