As we celebrate the 53rd Earth Day this year, we reflect on how this celebration came about and what it means, so many years after its inception.
Earth Day has always been about community. Communities nationwide began protesting in the 1960s over increasing concerns about unregulated industrialization, toxic agricultural practices, urban and suburban growth, and growing pollution from a century of rapid economic expansion. The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, followed by the Water Pollution Control Act of 1965.
Then in 1969 there was a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, followed months later by the Cuyahoga River in Ohio shockingly catching fire. Community protests swelled into a national movement that led to the first Earth Day in 1970 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that December. Bipartisan Congressional passage of landmark legislation followed in the early 1970s: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The slate of legislation was an amazing achievement that was copied by countries around the world.
Also in 1970, Sally Rodgers co-founded the first Earth Day celebration in Santa Fe. That year, she also co-founded the Conservation Voters Alliance, the precursor to what is now Conservation Voters New Mexico and Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund. Sally became the first female lobbyist working in the Roundhouse.
Using those laws passed in the 1960s and ’70s, countless volunteers, local, state and national advocates, and local, state, and federal environmental agencies have helped clean our air, land, and water and brought tangible benefits that people can see and appreciate directly in their lives. In some cases it’s cleaner tap water, or in others a nearby stream that now supports wildlife, or less harmful air pollution that eases asthma symptoms, or protected outdoor spaces where people can hunt and fish, hike, and bike.
At the state level, our decision-makers continue to work to protect our communities and our environment. This past legislative session, a number of important bills were signed into law – including SB 9 Create Legacy Permanent Funds, which creates historic funding streams for critical land, water, and wildlife conservation programs across the state. Examples like SB 9 are ones that continue to bring our communities together to push for meaningful, long-term change.
Of course, there is still much to do. The Supreme Court is poised to render a bad – possibly horrible – decision that would severely limit the ability of the EPA to protect streams and wetlands. In New Mexico, that could leave nearly 94% of surface waters unprotected. Agricultural runoff, largely exempt under the Clean Water Act, is still a significant source of air and water pollution. Cities, towns, and tribes still struggle with providing safe drinking water. Ozone and air particulate pollution is still a severe problem for cities and rural communities alike.
Now, we have growing concern over climate change caused by global warming and its potential for harm to everyone on the planet. What started in 1970 as a U.S. event now unites people in communities and nations worldwide. That community focus is still so important to foster and applaud in the face of what frightens many and threatens everyone living on planet Earth.
Visit our website “News and Alerts” to learn about critical ways that you can take action this Earth Day to protect New Mexico for our future generations.