This week, more than 193 nations will celebrate Earth Day. The annual event is a marker for the environmental movement begun on April 22, 1970, when Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson organized a peaceful teach-in. At the time, rivers were on fire, oil spills fouled Santa Barbara’s coastline, spaceships were headed to the moon, and the nation was at war.
Rachael Carson warned in the 1960s of a “Silent Spring” caused by toxic pesticides that were bad for songbirds and people. Hydro-fluorocarbons, a byproduct of refrigerants and other uses, were ripping holes in the ozone, triggering skin cancers.
Forests in the Pacific Northwest were being clearcut at an alarming rate of 2 square miles every week, which nearly wiped out the spotted owl and salmon.
Clearly, something had to be done. And, thankfully, millions of Americans demanded that Congress pass new laws to give us a healthy environment.
Over the past four decades, political activism has led to hard-fought gains in civil rights, gender rights, social justice, and environmental policies, from the Clean Air Act to the Northwest Forest Plan.
So, why do we need Earth Day even more now?
Because Earth Day serves as an important reminder that we are global citizens on a remarkable, living planet where the fate of all occupants are inextricably linked.
And, especially, because our progress towards a reliably clean environment is incomplete.
Forty-six years after that first Earth Day, the US, China, and another 193 nations reached a historic climate change agreement. They agreed to cut global warming pollutants by switching to clean, renewable energy and protecting forests that absorb our carbon pollution. Without a moon-shot of climate-saving actions, climate chaos will soon wreak havoc on the environment and the economy.
My career spans three decades of Earth Days accumulated from science activism around the globe. Everywhere I go, communities are struggling to balance economic needs with quality of life, clean air and water, and a safe climate. There’s perhaps no better place to witness this struggle than the conflict over forests in our region.
We can appreciate our older forests today because in 1993 scientists and citizens got together with Forest Service and BLM to forge the landmark Northwest Forest Plan under a court-ordered injunction on out-of control logging. For over two decades, this plan has directed federal forest management on some 25 million acres from the California coast redwoods to the Olympic rainforest. Without it, old-growth forests, aside from parks and wilderness, would have been gone in this decade, along with abundant salmon runs, clean water, and climate regulation.
Older forests on public lands are vital to a safe climate. Simply put, forests are nature’s cooling and water towers. They scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to keep dangerous greenhouse gas pollutants from overheating the planet. They purify our drinking water, keeping excessive sediment out of streams, which is good for salmon and agriculture. What we do to these forests will set the price of climate change.
Former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern warns that a business-as-usual approach to climate change will cost 20 percent or more of the global gross domestic product in health and economic impacts by mid-century. Eugene economist Ernie Niemi estimates that by 2020, Oregon households will pay over $1,900 annually in increased energy, coastal storm and flood costs.
Both the Forest Service and the BLM are in the process of revising the Northwest Forest Plan and there is enormous pressure from Oregon counties to increase logging that would reverse progress measured in miles of streams restored, salmon returning to rivers, and millions of acres of older forest as climate insurance.
In fact, BLM just announced plans to gut portions of the Northwest Forest Plan by increasing logging on 2.5 million acres, polluting the region with carbon dioxide emissions, and entering stream-side areas that protect us from floods. The BLM plan is national setback to the Obama administration’s leadership on global warming.
So on this special Earth week, find time to attend the region’s celebrations as you give thanks for the clean air and water, hiking and remarkable fish and wildlife we get from forests because of the protections that were advocated by citizens and scientists decades ago.
We have made great strides in improving the health of our environment these past 46 years, but there is still much to be done. Let’s not roll back progress by gutting the Northwest Forest Plan. After all, a safe climate and our vibrant forests and rivers depend on it!
Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist at Geos Institute in Ashland (geosinstitute.org), is an award-winning author of hundreds of scientific articles, including "Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation" (www.islandpress.org/dellasala) and “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fire: Nature’s Phoenix" (www.scitechconnect.elsevier.com/author/dominick-dellasala/). He is motivated by his passion to leave a living planet for his daughter and all those that follow.