Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Earth Day was the first day of the Anthropocene

The first time I saw Blackbird Creek, it flowed bright red into Panther Creek.

Panther Creek itself was dead in 1986, killed by the heavy metals and toxins that filled the watershed from the Blackbird Mine. The mine had yielded tons of copper and cobalt until the 1950s, at the expense of an annual run of 2,000 salmon and steelhead.

The Panther Creek I saw was one of the worst examples of environmental destruction caused by humans for our own selfish needs. But today Panther Creek is almost back.

The cleanup largely began in 1995, bringing back Chinook salmon, steelhead, rainbow and bull trout, according to USGS biologist Christopher Mebane who has studied Panther Creek for more than 20 years. He is lead author on a peer-reviewed paper, published in Elementa with scientists from the companies participating in the Blackbird Mine cleanup, that shows the success of the restoration program.

It’s not done yet. The aquatic insects are still hindered by the toxins that remain in the watershed after the companies have spent $50 million on cleanup. But the restoration of Panther Creek is the latest demonstration of the power of people to change the world.

Those people were the organizers and participants in Earth Day 45 years ago today. I was one of the more than 20 million World War II veterans, housewives, student radicals, artists, accountants, scientists, labor leaders, autoworkers, civil rights activists, elected officials and children whose national demonstration made protecting the environment a core value of the human race.

It came after the great boom in development following World War II had turned America’s rivers into sewers and shrouded its cities in air pollution. These conditions triggered the birth of a new movement as powerful as the industrial revolution in shaping civilization.

From these first days came the Clean Water Act, the law that required the cleanup of Panther Creek and also the Boise River, which has undergone its own transformation. The Clean Air Act forced us to do in the 1970s what China is only beginning to recognize today what it must do. The Endangered Species Act has made protecting biological diversity one of the highest priorities of the United States.

But I argue that Earth Day was transformational in other ways, too. It marked the beginning of a new geological epoch – one in which we got the humility to understand what we had done.

The Holocene epoch began 12,000 to 11,500 years ago at the end of an ice age and the geologic epoch known as the Pleistocene. During this period, humans thrived as they shifted from hunting and gathering to animal domestication and agriculture.

As much as any species, humans adjusted to their habitat throughout the world, even mastering their environment. But in the Industrial Revolution, humans developed the ability to reshape the earth on a geologic scale.

Dams transformed entire drainages. Canals made rivers flow in new directions. Mines and roads altered entire landscapes. Pollution changed the chemistry of waterways like Panther Creek – and the atmosphere, eventually altering the climate in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer suggested in 2000 that the Earth had entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Ice-core evidence showed then that greenhouse gases were rising in concentration in the atmosphere in the late 1800s.

The debate over the term Anthropocene (pronounced an-THRAW-puh-seen) has gathered steam in the last decade, reaching into the popular culture in 2011.

Many geologists believe it’s too soon to declare a new epoch. But whether the Anthropocene started with the Industrial Revolution, the Atomic Age or some other moment, the critical point for us as a human race was when we recognized it.

That day was April 22, 1970.

Those of us who participated in Earth Day tend to measure the environmental gains to the world against the baseline of the world before man altered it. We are last generation of the Holocene.

A new generation, those born after Earth Day, don’t look back but forward to the transforming world of climate change. They are the Anthropocene generation.

And no matter what Panther Creek was before the miners, and what it has returned to today, it will be a different waterway again in the warmer world ahead.