Letters From the West

Earth Day is a personal celebration

earthToday is Earth Day, a 44-year-old celebration of the globe of life we share with humanity and the larger life community it sustains.

As we have for two generations, we will celebrate in our schools, in our communities, in our parks, in our gardens and even on our social networks. An army of professionals with agendas from all sides of corners of the civic, business and religious communities will seek to educate us about what this day and that day 44 years ago means.

For me Earth Day is personal. I was an Illinois farm boy who grew up only 40 miles from Chicago in a time when my local creek was clogged with sewage and choking air pollution wafted with the east wind over our farm intensifying my persistent asthma.

Farm life inherently puts you in touch with the rhythms of nature. I ran wild like a wolf through our fields, a forest preserve and along Somonauk Creek until my mother called by blowing a golden brass hunting horn.

Later I hunted for pheasants, rabbits and ducks on ours and the neighboring farms. The first Earth Day was a huge event for a young news junkie like me who was interested in what I knew then as conservation.

The next year I decided to go to Wisconsin to college at Northland College. There I quickly became engaged in our student environmental group.

I hitchhiked to Madison in March of 1972 to attend a statewide meeting of the Wisconsin Resource Conservation Council as a representative of a group fighting a Navy project. There I met Martin Hanson, an old-time Democratic conservationist who lived in the Penokee Mountain country of the North.

He took me, then a Nixon Republican, under his wing, introducing me to some of the state’s leaders including his close friend Gaylord Nelson. Nelson is the founder of Earth Day, who as a U.S. Senator, pushed for the environmental laws that have cleaned up the air and the water and protected biological diversity.

I would join Martin for cocktails on his pontoon boat on the private lake at his house, with Nelson, Congressman David Obey and a host of U.S. senators, attorney generals and other luminaries. Nelson invited me in 1979 to tour the Apostle Islands where he introduced me to Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus.

I have come a long way from Wisconsin, spending most of my life, my career and my Earth Days in Idaho. I covered the clash of values between loggers, miners and ranchers and environmentalists since the 1980s.

I covered the nuclear industry, visited Africa, China, Canada and Russia and saw how our world has been transformed by population growth, technology, freedom, religion, hate and love. Today, I see former enemies working together to improve the land and the lives of communities through their common connections to nature.

Martin and Gaylord are gone but their visions live on in ways that transcend politics. Free market Republicans celebrate this day along with people far to their left.

Humanity’s ties to nature, which were most powerfully revealed by the pictures of Earth taken by astronauts flying to the Moon, are what we celebrate, along with our own interdependency.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West