Wisconsin’s Green Fire Members Reflect on Earth Day 2022
WI Green Fire, April 21, 2022
In celebration of Earth Day 2022, we asked some of our members their favorite memories of Earth Day, and what Earth Day means to them as conservation professionals. Below is a collection of photos, memories, stories, and inspirational words from our members – ranging from stories about the first Earth Day in 1970, to photos of landscapes, flowers, and the wildlife that also call this planet home. We hope this collection not only inspires action to protect the Earth, but evokes feelings of peace, joy, and healing.
Remembering the First Earth Day: Where We Were and Where We Are Today
Why is Earth Day important to you?
My father and I worked a combined 67 years for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). He was in the first environmental education class in America starting in 1946 under Professor Schmeekle at what is now UW-Stevens Point. For his senior project he organized a radio series on the terrible pollution in the Wisconsin River. In parts of the river near Rhinelander, small animals could walk across the water on the sludge/crust and there was at least 13 feet of sediment near the dam from the untreated waste upstream (see pictures to the right). The university cancelled the series due to pressure from the paper industry. 30 years later, I was given the honor of leading the effort to clean up the Wisconsin River which resulted in a reduction of over 90% of paper mill waste discharged to the river (see photo on right) and restoration of “fishable, swimmable water quality” required by the Clean Water Act of 1972. The change in public attitude and public demand for clean water was directly related to
Earth Day when over 20 million people (in a country of 150 million at that time) turned out to support the environment. It was a triumph of science and public support over political resistance in the Wisconsin River Valley. We are all better off as a result.
What is your favorite Earth Day memory?
On the first Earth Day in 1970 I was an undergrad at Northwestern University. I attended a 24-hour Earth Day “teach-in” headlined by Paul Erlich, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger and supported by dozens of scientists of national stature. It opened my eyes to the entire environmental situation. I remember thinking (at 7am after an all-night event) that this environmental movement was a good fit for me. For the next 52 years I have worked personally and professionally to improve the environment. The first Earth Day changed my life.
I was a student in Biology at UW-Stevens Point during the first Earth Day, and participated in the activities on that day. At that time, you could not go near or eat fish out of the Wisconsin River. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was regularly catching fire. I, like Bob Martini and others, were angry and motivated to help make a difference. After receiving my BS in Biology, I went to UW Law School, with the goal of becoming a lawyer at WDNR to help fight to protect Wisconsin’s waters and resources. I clerked for them for my three years of Law School and was hired to work on water issues (initially groundwater, and then on surface waters for 32 years). It hasn’t always been easy, but there have been some great success stories.
The Milwaukee River was also a polluted mess. It is now a major attraction for the citizens of, and for people visiting, Milwaukee. It was the Clean Water Act and other legislation, and the subsequent enforcement of those laws that were passed after the first Earth Day, that made this possible. I was involved, while at WDNR, in developing the process for establishing the Riverwalk and making sure that the public had access
along the Milwaukee River shorelines.
Educating the Next Generation
One of my favorite Earth Day memories was from 2008. We were sitting outside with about 50 students and teachers from the Northwoods Community School in Rhinelander witnessing the signing of a conservation easement being granted by landowner Roger Degris. As the Executive Director of the Northwoods Land Trust (NWLT), I had worked with Roger to prepare the conservation easement documents. With me to help notarize the signing were NWLT board members Bob Martini and Bill Dickens.
Roger, a retired teacher and former resort owner, was conserving in perpetuity over 3,800 feet of natural shoreline frontage on an extensive peninsula on Squash Lake, a 396-acre popular recreational lake west of Rhinelander. What could have been sold and developed as a new lakefront subdivision with nearly 40 additional homes, his gift of a conservation easement was a gift of natural shoreline to all future generations.
As Roger told the students: “I could have been rich and had it made, but money isn’t everything. Part of my help towards Earth Day is the fact that this isn’t just for me, this is for the whole world. This is something forever, and I believe in it. I hope that it can have some meaning for you young people too.”
The conservation easement signing took place at the entrance to the Holmboe Conifer Forest State Natural Area, a property originally protected by The Nature Conservancy and recently transferred to NWLT. The students and teachers continued their Earth Day celebration by taking a hike under the towering white pines and eastern hemlocks of Holmboe’s old growth forest. I followed them through the woods listening to their excited chatter and was grateful that my work through the land trust could have a truly lasting impact for protecting the northwoods long into the future.
This is Sheldon, a 21-year-old ornate box turtle who serves as an education turtle at the Milwaukee County Zoo. He had an infection as a little one, making one of his nostrils larger than the other. He’s a wonderful education coworker and it’s great to talk with kiddos about turtle conservation and turtle life.
Appreciating and Respecting the Earth’s Beauty
In the three weeks or so leading up to Earth Day each year, on warm nights when spring rains convince us winter is being washed away, a largely unseen parade takes place on the floors of hardwood forests.
Blue-spotted salamanders (pictured left) move at that time from their burrows in upland soil to shallow, seasonal wetlands to breed.
Several hundred feet or more of unfragmented woodland surrounding an ephemeral pool is necessary to ensure both safe travel and a sustainable population for this amphibian.
Earth Day is about sustaining life on the home planet. This year, walk in a woods and look for a vernal pool knowing that both form the Blue-spotted salamander’s critical habitat. It is depending on us to protect them.
And finally, some photos of Wisconsin’s natural beauty: