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Earth Day at 50: Time to keep the faith

Decades ago, as our small group canoed past submerged tires, rusted refrigerators and other debris fouling the Connecticut River, we gagged from a putrid stench. 

“Must be a sewer line nearby,” I gasped.

Sure enough, we soon approached a pipe that emptied raw waste directly into the water. We held our breath and picked up the pace. 

A few days later, the river flowed crimson near a factory outfall.

There were many sublime moments, but plenty of disgusting ones, during our 22-day expedition that began beneath a bridge between two tiny villages in Vermont and New Hampshire near the Canadian border and ended nearly 400 miles downriver at the Connecticut’s mouth at Long Island Sound in Old Saybrook. I had been part of a college group sponsored by an environmental organization to prepare a report chronicling pollution on the river, which we presented to students, government leaders and anybody else who would listen.

Back then, with no federal laws against water pollution, revolting conditions were commonplace, not just on the Connecticut River, but throughout the country.

Finally, after the chemically contaminated Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burst into flames, a small band of activists led by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin began planning a nationwide campaign to save the planet from ecological devastation. Modeled after teach-ins protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the first gatherings on April 22, 1970, drew some 20 million Americans, about 10% of the population, to thousands of colleges, universities, schools and parks.

Thus began Earth Day, now hailed as the birth of the environmental movement.

Earth Day, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next Wednesday, has blossomed into an international extravaganza billed as the world’s largest civic event.

With this year’s coronavirus social distancing curtailing large gatherings everywhere, supporters hope nonetheless to harness the same enthusiastic spirit and admirable action that Earth Day inspired half a century ago.

Only a few months after the first Earth Day, President Richard M. Nixon, who had long been vilified by anti-war protesters, earned praise by creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That year he also signed into law an amendment to the Clean Air Act establishing national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards.

Then in 1972, just as the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace two years later unfolded, he signed the Clean Water Act, limiting sewage and pollutants from entering rivers, lakes and streams. A year later, Congress passed and Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, followed by the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.

By then, “green power” was sweeping the land. Citizens organized beach cleanups and anti-litter campaigns, encouraged local governments to adopt recycling ordinances, and also raised money to buy land for nature preserves.

Here in southeastern Connecticut, more than a dozen land trusts and preservation organizations have collectively protected from development more than 21,000 acres. Many groups took root during those early days of environmental awareness, and I referred to most of them in a column April 3, “Traipsing on North Stonington trails: Vernal pools, stone walls and cockfighting rings.”

Some of these groups formed more recently, and this week I heard from Amanda Blair, co-chair of Old Lyme's Open Space Committee, which was created in 1997. She told me that to date the committee has set aside five parcels totaling 900 acres.

The most recent acquisition, The McCulloch Family Open Space property, “consists of over 70% forest land, vernal pools, wetlands and open meadows. It is a part of the upper watershed of the Black Hall River, a tributary of the Connecticut River,” she wrote in an email. Blair added, “We are currently developing three trails on the property with the assistance of the Old Lyme Land Trust and others and hope to have the open space available to the public soon. When open, the McCulloch Family Open Space will connect to the existing trails on the Old Lyme Land Trust's Lay Preserve to the north and the town’s Ames Open Space to the west, thus creating a cross town trail for hiking, jogging, bird watching and nature studies.”

I look forward to hiking on some of these trails soon, especially since they are so close to the Connecticut River, now a much more pristine waterway thanks in part to Earth Day-inspired initiatives.

When I kayak on the Connecticut these days, I see eagles, osprey, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks and other birds absent during my earlier paddling voyage. No more raw sewage, either.

The Nature Conservancy considers the lower Connecticut River, now surrounded by thousands of acres of wildlife preserves, one of “The World’s Last Great Places.” The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization also has declared this section an “Estuary of Global Importance.” 

On this Earth Day anniversary, we must strive to keep in place laws that protect the Connecticut River and other natural areas. We must resist growing economic and political pressures to develop, extract resources and otherwise despoil our natural treasures.

Preserving them is one of the greatest legacies we can leave for future generations.


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