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A child of Earth Day finds optimism



I guess you can call me a child of Earth Day.

Thirty years ago this week I celebrated the first Earth Day as a junior in high school. Around the country, activists buried cars, performed guerrilla theater and held teach-ins -- about pollution, over-population and ecology.

Our involvement was not so imaginative. We picked up litter along the road near our school.

But I caught the environmental bug anyway. A year later, I enrolled in the new environmental studies program at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. There I studied ecology, environmental economics, land- and water-use planning and many other classes offered for the first time. Students and professors broke new ground together.

The heady excitement of participating in a new movement couldn't hide the pall of despair that hung over the environmental cause. Population growth continued to climb exponentially. Industrialization fouled the air and sullied the rivers of the United States and other Western nations. The leaders of the movement -- Rachael Carson, Paul Ehrlich, David Brower and many others -- focused attention on the dark forces aligned against Nature.

One of the few voices of optimism came from a former outfitter and teacher named Sigurd Olson. He led the fight to preserve the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and went on to head The Wilderness Society and the Conservation Foundation. Northland College named its environmental institute after him, and I was lucky enough to get to know him as a young man. In 1972, he gave a speech that I have carried with me ever since.

"We know we cannot abandon our technology, but we can and must seek a balance between it and ecology," he said. "If we can accept the premise that there is a limit to growth, that population must be controlled, that our global ecology can be one of harmony, then we can look with confidence to our future."

Anyone with an eye on the environment today can find evidence that Olson's challenge is being met. Rivers and waterways across the United States and Europe have gone from open sewers to liquid lifelines teeming with fish and fowl. Cities such as my own Boise, Idaho, have rediscovered their rivers as scenic assets and turned them into glistening greenbelts of pride.

These days, as an environmental journalist -- an occupation that only began around Earth Day -- I witness progress with increasing regularity. Last year, I watched as the Edwards Dam was breached on the Kennebec River in Maine, restoring 17 miles of river to Atlantic salmon, sea bass and other anadromous species that had been shut out since Nathaniel Hawthorne walked its banks.

In 1995, I watched the first wolves run out of metal cages and into Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. A little more than a month later, I was one of the first to hear free wolves howl in Yellowstone National Park. Last year, I celebrated with the Peregrine Fund folks upon the removal of the Peregrine falcon from the Endangered Species list.

Air pollution has dropped significantly in most of our largest metropolitan areas -- even Los Angeles -- due to the Clean Air Act and stiffer controls on auto exhaust. The world's population growth has slowed. Today we share the blue orb with 6 billion people. But it could have been 12 billion if the trend of 30 years ago had continued.

Still, as the conservationist Aldo Leopold once remarked, those of us with an ecological education are saddled with the reality that "one lives alone in a world of wounds." Pollution continues. Global warming appears to be a reality. Voracious sprawl eats up open space and rich farmland here and abroad. Two billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Globalization robs us not only of biological diversity, but of cultural diversity, which may be just as critical for our long-term survival.

We have so much more to do. But I remain optimistic because people all over the world are adjusting their lives to fit into the limits of nature. From ranchers who have restored the health of riparian zones to save salmon in Idaho to African villagers who have begun protecting the animals that live around their homes, I have seen rich and poor lighten their footprints on the face of the Earth.

Where will we be in 30 years? I don't know. I can't predict the future any better today then I could at the first Earth Day. I'm sure we will still have plenty of problems to solve. But if the remarkable happenings of the first 30 years are prelude, then, like Sigurd Olson, I can't help but look to the future with confidence.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise.

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