Earth Day, which began in the spring of 1970 as a way to raise awareness of emerging environmental concerns, has taken on special meaning for outdoor-recreation lovers in the early part of the 21st Century. Suddenly, mountain bikers in southern Utah have rounded the corner to find an oil-and-gas drilling rig on their favorite patch of slick-rock. Hikers in the Pacific Northwest have discovered their beloved grove of old-growth forest is now a clear-cut. Kayakers on San Francisco Bay have found themselves floating in a witches' brew of agricultural pollution, as a decades-long trend toward better water quality is reversed.
"And it's going to get worse unless those hikers and kayakers and climbers get more involved," said the man who made Earth Day a household phrase on seven continents. Back in 1970, Denis Hayes was a young Harvard grad student who took Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson's idea for an "environmental teach-in" on college campuses and turned it into the much broader notion of Earth Day. The 35th anniversary of that event will occur on Earth Day 2004 on April 22.
"Nelson fathered the idea," Hayes said, "and I made it happen." Not only did Hayes organize the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, which thrust environmental concerns into the political realm for the first time, but he has maintained a place over the next three decades as one of the environmental movement's clearest and most respected voices. The first Earth Day in 1970 drew 20 million participants, and American Heritage Magazine called that inaugural event "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy." Ironically, some of the same issues at the leading edge of the nascent environmental movement in 1970--air pollution, dependence on fossil fuels, diminishing water quality--are still at the top of the list 35 years later.
"These are no abstract concerns," Hayes told GreatOutdoors.com from his offices in Seattle, Washington. "We're talking about issues that affect day to day life for everyone. The past few years have seen the greatest roll-back in environmental protections ever, a dramatic reversal of air- and water-quality standards, and increasing industrial incursions into previously protected lands. And we are faced with even more catastrophic problems such as global warming. Traditionally, climbers, hikers, kayakers and other recreationists have not been at the forefront of environmental efforts. I think that's going to change as they see access to their favorite places lost."
A lot has changed for Hayes since that first Earth Day 35 years ago. He has been a government official, an author, a scholar, a professor, and a researcher. He became a practicing attorney, an engineering professor at Stanford University, a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, and author of two books. But he has remained a dogged champion for alternative energy and enlightened environmental efforts all over the planet. At age 35, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the U.S. Solar Energy Research Institute. When he is not writing or speaking about issues like global warming, he serves as president of the Bullitt Foundation, an organization that helps fuel a wide range of Pacific Northwest environmental causes, such as restoration of salmon runs.
"The good news is that the 35th Earth Day is very definitely an international phenomenon," Hayes said. "It's an event that will be observed in more than 180 countries on every continent. It's the only thing of its kind like it, a theme based non-religious holiday celebrated worldwide. It is a tremendous asset to the environment. Earth Day gives people a sense of common purpose, a way to work with the rest of humanity on big issues like climate change, the epidemic of extinction, and population growth."
Hayes is quick to point out that the major concerns of the day are not distant, remote problems, but issues that are very close to all of us: the highest rates of asthma ever seen are now found in urban areas such as New York, coal-fired energy generation has resulted in high levels of mercury for nearby populations, and pesticide contamination is causing adverse health affects for consumers and farm workers alike. Even global developments, such as climate change wrought by the increased burning of fossil fuels, can be addressed on a regional and national level.
"The most effective way to broaden the coalition pf people who consider themselves environmentalists," Hayes said, "is to focus on these major issues in a local way. And the fact is, if you care about any of these issues, you have to become politically engaged as well as actively engaged in finding solutions."
But Hayes is a pragmatist, and he knows that in troubled times, and eras of geo-political upheaval, sometimes environmental concerns take a back seat. "When the country is at war," he said, "it's harder to find breathing room for these kinds of concerns, no matter how important. And where there are hard economic times, those distractions are exacerbated. But still, it's reassuring to look at the level of support for the environment, as people all over the world step up to fight these systematic roll-backs in environmental protections.
"The real tragedy," he continued, "is that American scientists have done most of the pioneering work on climate change, and made every important scientific advance on solar power, and yet America is no longer at the fore front of environmental efforts. Americans pioneered both a recognition of the problems and a lot of the solutions, and yet now Japan and European countries are producing way more solar cells. It is the people of those countries who are making the genuine adjustments to fight global warming. I think it's time for Americans to make a stronger stand on the environment."
What can you do, as a climber, or a hiker or a paddler, or a cyclist? Hayes has some suggestions: Do more of what you do, hike more, climb more, see and monitor the places you enjoy. Join and financially support the groups that are aligned with your concerns, be that the Access Fund or the Sierra Club. Go to hearings, take your five minutes at the microphone. And, says Hayes, register to vote, and get your friends to register. Work to elect government officials who will be responsive to your concerns about habitat, about wilderness, about water quality, about access, about the national parks. Check out EarthDay.net for more pragmatic tips on how you can get involved in protecting the places you love.
"Use this 35th Earth Day to take pride in protecting the planet," Hayes says. "After all, working for the good of the environment is arguably the most selfless movement ever to march across the political landscape. It's not going to advance you on an individual basis at all, it's not going to enrich you personally, it is just going to make for a habitable planet. Is there a higher calling than that?"