The First Earth Day

By Linda Speckhals
Dennis Hayes, national coordinator of Earth Day, Larry Green, and crowd at Civic Center Plaza (Richard J Daley Center) for Earth Day, 50 West Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois, April 22, 1970. (Photo by Chicago Sun-Times collection/Chicago History Muse

On April 10, 1872, the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska, as they set out to plant trees. On that first Arbor Day, it is estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska. Arbor Day became national after that, however, in the 1960s, Americans still had limited laws to protect the air and water, and the Environmental Protection Agency was not established until December 2, 1970. Water and air pollution were essentially the norm as cars were still using leaded gas and industries faced few repercussions for pollution. The country was focused on the war in Vietnam as well as other domestic strife and dedicated little time to environmental problems.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, an international bestseller that began to raise awareness about environmental concerns and showed the link between the environment and public health. That same year, Gaylord Nelson was elected to the US Senate, where he remained until 1980. Nelson, who had served two terms as the Governor of Wisconsin, was dubbed “the Conservation Governor” because of his efforts. He believed that economic prosperity was not at odds with environmental protection. In 1963, Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to embark on a national speaking tour to talk about environmental issues.