The First Earth Day

by | April 2020, History

Photographs courtesy of the author

The start of a movement in Johnsburg

 

The year 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an event that united the nation in common cause for our environment. Here in the Adirondacks, in the town of Johnsburg, people took action in a show of support for that first Earth Day. I know, because I was there.

For some time Victor Sasse and I—both forest rangers based in Warren County—had been complaining to each other and to anyone else who would listen about the growing amount of trash left behind at Garnet Lake, Thirteenth Lake and other Forest Preserve sites. We agreed that what was needed was a law requiring deposits on beer and soda cans and bottles, a big part of the litter problem at camping areas and along roadsides. (Such legislation had been “bottled up” by New York’s beverage industry for years.) This happened at the same time, in 1969, that Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, proposed an “environmental teach-in.” His idea touched a nerve. Representative Pete McCloskey, a Republican from California, joined Senator Nelson and a truly bipartisan celebration was born. It came at a crucial time. Stories about environmental problems were appearing in newspapers and magazines; TV reports showed huge garbage scows dumping New York City’s refuse out to sea and pollution fouling the air, land and water—Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so thick with industrial waste that it caught fire. The nation had abandoned its Depression-era “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” frugality. The inaugural Earth Day event, planned for April 22, 1970, would help change that.

The idea to do something for Earth Day in Johnsburg came to Sasse and me over lunch. Then, Reverend Reicher (“Pastor Joe”) offered the Methodist church in Wevertown as a place for people to talk about hosting an Earth Day. A notice for a meeting was placed in the North Creek News Enterprise and the event took shape.

The night of the meeting people took their seats in the front pews. There was Reverend Reicher, Reverend Daisy Allen, high-school teachers Paul Little and Ray Robinson, builder Bob Nessle, Glenn Fish, who was an active member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, plus a handful of Johnsburg high-school students, and Victor Sasse and me. We made plans for that first Earth Day, but we also discussed the need for a permanent group dedicated to environmental service. 

To be sure, the years following World War II had been good ones for many Americans. Young families were settling into cookie-cutter housing tracts and shopping at new malls accessed by automobile. The auto industry had cashed in with sleek sedans and station wagons designed to make going places more enjoyable. Advertising jingles like “See the USA In Your Chevrolet” encouraged families to get away from crowded suburbs in their comfortable new cars. With the rise of tourism came improved roads, new diners, tourist cabins, more state campgrounds and gas stations. In places like the Adirondacks, summer camps offered suburban kids a way to make new friends and have fun in nature. Theme parks like Lake George’s Storytown USA, and Santa’s Workshop, in Wilmington, became popular tourist destinations.

But America’s once pristine environment was changing—and not for the better. A century earlier, America’s western frontier had closed. Now it seemed the remaining open spaces on the map were disappearing too. Then in 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring stunned the nation by exposing the disastrous consequences of the widespread overuse of toxic pesticides such as DDT to birds, fish and all of nature. The chemical industry reacted with categorical denials and furious personal attacks against Carson. Nevertheless, Silent Spring caught people’s attention, especially those born between 1946 and 1964. The Baby Boom Generation was awakening.

By the late 1960s, rebellious Boomers were turning away from the values and institutions of their parents’ generation. Many wanted to live closer to nature. In the Adirondack Park, young families were settling in, bringing new talent, energy and ideas to North Country communities.

That first Earth Day, in 1970, more than a hundred men, women and children volunteered to scour Johnsburg’s roadsides. They gathered a huge mound of trash that day. Their enthusiasm signaled that Adirondackers could work together on future environment projects.

In the years that followed, Johnsburg’s Earth Day and picnic—held at the North Creek Ski Bowl—became an annual event. It also gave rise to the Upper Hudson Environmental Action Committee (UHEAC), which became involved in a variety of environmental issues and activities, including returnable container legislation (the bottle bill), erosion-control tree planting, community recycling drives, community beautification, junk-car surveys, land-use plans and advocating for state land purchases. UHEAC served as a forerunner to the environmental organization Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, now called Protect the Adirondacks.

Is there a takeaway from Johnsburg’s Earth Day five decades ago? Our journey to a better world must begin with learning how to work together locally. In the words of environmentalist René Dubos, long a touchstone for UHEAC members, “If you cannot do something about that stream or those lovely marshlands in your town, then how do you think you are going to save the globe?”


Louis Curth is a retired New York Forest Ranger Captain and author of The Forest Rangers: A History of the New York State Forest Ranger Force.

 


Take Action

Want to make a difference? Plant a pollinator garden, host a teach-in, help eradicate invasive plants or organize a community cleanup. Visit www.earthday.org to find an Earth Day event near you or for information on how to create one.


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