Letters from the West

Even Nixon was a ’70s environmentalist: How bipartisanship made Earth Day a success

This photo appeared on page one of the Statesman on April 23, 1970 of members of Beta Sigma Phi fraternity at Boise State College removing old car bodies from the Boise foothills above Eighth Street.
This photo appeared on page one of the Statesman on April 23, 1970 of members of Beta Sigma Phi fraternity at Boise State College removing old car bodies from the Boise foothills above Eighth Street.

Republican Rep. Paul “Pete” McCloskey is largely a footnote in the history of the modern environmental movement.

Yet his partnership with Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the man who envisioned the nationwide demonstration we celebrate as Earth Day, made the first one a successful bipartisan launch on April 22, 1970.

On that day, 20 million Americans in 2,000 communities and 10,000 schools planted trees, cleaned up parks, buried cars in mock graves, marched, listened to speeches and protested how humans were messing up the planet.

Idaho gubernatorial candidate Cecil Andrus marched down Capitol Boulevard with Boise State students and made protecting the White Cloud Mountains from open-pit mining a centerpiece of his successful campaign.

Bill Mauk, now a Boise attorney, was then a recent graduate and a former student body president at the University of Southern California. He worked with his friend Denis Hayes as an organizer of this year’s national March for Science, which is taking place Saturday – on Earth Day – in hundreds of cities, including Boise.

Sen. Nelson, who later introduced me to then-Interior Secretary Andrus in 1979 while touring Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, came up with the idea for a 1970 “teach-in” on the environment after 3 million gallons of oil spilled on the beaches of Santa Barbara and killed 10,000 seabirds in January 1969.

Nelson was a longtime conservationist in Wisconsin, the home state of both John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Nelson was also a Democrat, so his role only enhanced his political career.

McCloskey, a Republican, had a much harder case to make for government regulation to protect the environment.

“It was more courageous for him, as a Republican,” said Hayes, who was in Washington, D.C., on Friday for a rally and teach-in for Earth Day weekend.

McCloskey was a Marine second lieutenant who led six bayonet charges in Korea and came home with two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. No one could doubt his courage. His leadership on environmental issues continued after the first Earth Day, and he remains a fighter for the cause to this day, at age 89.

Hayes led a political campaign that targeted a “Dirty Dozen” of lawmakers from both parties who had bad environmental records. By November 1972, seven of the dozen had been defeated — two senior Democrats and five Republicans.

This is why Congress passed the 28 major initiatives that became the foundation of the nation’s environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and amendments strengthening the National Environmental Policy Act.

Today the people who have to show courage are often the scientists whose research tells politicians what they don’t want to hear. That’s why scientists in 500 cities around the world will gather for the March for Science.

The need for such a march is a development that would astound people from the first Earth Day. Only days before, Americans shared the unifying experience of watching NASA scientists and engineers miraculously bring the three astronauts back from space in the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft.

In 2017, the Trump administration is seeking to gut research budgets, remove data they don’t like from government websites and deny what the overwhelming majority of scientists consider basic truths.

Some Idaho lawmakers would like the state to follow suit by limiting climate change discussion in schools or stopping the use of the phrase “climate change” by state scientists and employees.

And Idaho is not the only state. Nelson’s own daughter, Tia, stepped down as executive secretary of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in Wisconsin in 2015 because of a gag order from the Gov. Scott Walker administration.

“I was forbidden as a state employee from speaking the words ‘climate change’ during work hours, even though as a public timberland manager climate change was affecting our work, and nearly every industrial timber company today includes climate risks on their websites and in their business considerations,” Nelson said.

I have said many times that I am a child of Earth Day. I participated in the first one by picking up litter and planting trees; I went to Northland College in 1971 for a degree in environmental studies.

I also voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 because he declared the 1970s “the environmental decade.” I looked back at his 1970 State of the Union address, given three months before Earth Day, and still marvel at its powerful environmental message.

It explains why he created the EPA by executive order and signed the legislation McCloskey and Nelson fought so hard to pass.

“Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American,” President Nixon said. “If we act now, they can be.”

And they still can be. But not without people in both parties supporting scientific research and having the courage to go where the data take us.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

March for Science

The Boise event that is part of the national series of marches will begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Idaho Capitol.