Earth Day XXXIX

Biggest challenges lie ahead
This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Americans recall the legacy of President Richard M. Nixon, environmental protection isn't the first thought that comes to mind. That's unfortunate and unfair. The annual celebration of Earth Day and the great strides made by the Nixon administration and the Congress during the '70s to clean up air and water and save endangered species are inextricably entwined.

Earth Day focused the energy of Americans, and Nixon's response to it put us on the road to being green.

The first Earth Day April 22, 1970, was an unprecedented grass-roots expression of nationwide concern about smog, acid rain, toxic waste, disappearing birds and animals, overflowing landfills and radiation. There was no government agency whose sole mission was to protect Americans from such things. The Nixon administration created the Environmental Protection Agency just months after the first Earth Day and assigned it the job of regulating polluters and making rules to prevent industry, individuals and government from ruining rivers and oceans, dumping poison into the air and into the soil.

That same year Congress amended the Clean Air Act to set national standards for air quality, auto emissions and other pollutants and two years later passed the Clean Water Act. In 1971 Congress banned lead-based paint in homes and on cribs and toys, and in 1972 the EPA banned DDT, a cancer-causing pesticide that was killing wildlife and threatening people. In 1974 the Safe Drinking Water Act became law.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act provided for "the conservation of ecosystems upon which threatened and endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants depend."

Although curbside recycling made its debut in 1874, it didn't get widespread public support until the fever pitch of conservation sparked by Earth Day festivities. Congress responded to the public fervor with the Resource Recovery Act that shifted emphasis from waste disposal to recycling. Now Americans recycle everything from aluminum cans and newspapers to old cars.

But can we meet today's challenges to protect the Earth and its ecosystems from climate change, nuclear waste, industrial pollutants and a global population explosion? We believe we must. American technology and ingenuity can again be the impetus to lead the world to cleaner energy, more breathable air, smarter growth and healthier people.

Today, on the 39th Earth Day, each of us should refocus on those goals and demand our governments do the same. It's more important than ever.