Fifty years after the first Earth Day, bald eagles have returned to just about every corner of Minnesota. Peregrine falcons, once wiped out of the state, now commonly nest on the roofs of buildings across downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. Trumpeter swans, wild turkeys and wolves, all of which were gone or all but gone from Minnesota on the first Earth Day in 1970, have re-established stable or even abundant populations.
A half-century later, it’s easy to see some of the successes of the grassroots movement and the sweeping environmental laws it helped spark. Many rivers are cleaner, and air pollution, especially within cities, has been drastically reduced.
But it remains to be seen how the legacy of Earth Day — created April 22, 1970 — will continue or change over the next generation as environmental threats mount and a changing climate has put a quarter of the Earth’s species at risk of extinction, said Jessica Hellmann, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
“If I was at the first Earth Day looking forward 50 years, I would be disappointed that we still have so much disagreement about how to make progress,” Hellmann said.
Millions participated in the first Earth Day, held at a time when certain rivers would occasionally catch fire and many more were too polluted to keep most species of fish alive, let alone permit swimming. The bald eagle population had been decimated by pesticides. An oil spill, the largest in the country’s history at the time, had just devastated parts of the California coast.
After touring the oil spill, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin came up with the idea to hold a national teach-in day about the environment. That day became known as Earth Day, now practiced in more than 190 countries.
Soon after, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency, passed the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act and created endangered species protections.
Now the country is marking the 50th anniversary while largely trapped indoors. Across Minnesota, Earth Day lectures and celebrations have been moved online, while guided hikes and popular preserve tours have been canceled and river and park cleanups have been postponed because of the coronavirus.
Minnesota is facing arguably more challenges and environmental threats than it was in the 1970s. Wild bee and pollinator populations have collapsed. More than 90% of the state’s hibernating bats have been killed off by a fungus. Rising temperatures have caused more extreme storms and more frequent flooding. Those floods, along with increased draining from nearby farmlands, have pumped so much additional water into the Minnesota River that its banks are eroding fast enough to swallow houses and collapse water towers as the width of the river has more than doubled in recent years.
Earth Day was created on the idea that human well-being is very much tied to the well-being of the environment, Hellmann said. While her students and the public seem to be just as actively engaged and aware of environmental threats today, Hellmann said she doesn’t necessarily expect to see a public policy surge similar to the 1970s.
Rather, in recent years, the most ambitious goals are coming from the private sector, Hellmann said, pointing to Xcel Energy’s promise to produce 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050.
“The big thing is that companies are setting some remarkable goals and shareholders are going along with them,” she said. “Customers are expecting it. The story we’ll tell about this period of time for the American environment will be about the action of consumers, and how the private sector responds.”