Anti-communist crusaders and the John Birch Society called foul on the proposed date for Earth Day—April 22, 1970—because, they discovered, it coincided with the 100th anniversary of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. As a result, some conservative public officials refused to sanction April 22 events. In truth, the date for Earth Day was selected as the most convenient for students.

 Earth Day blew organizers’ expectations out of the water. The initial plans called for 40 events. But the call to action generated over 12,000 events—300 times more than anticipated—involving 35,000 speakers and engaging about 20 million Americans—about 1 out of every 10 Americans.

 The media coverage of the first Earth Day is unparalleled. The Today Show focused on the environment for the entire week of April 20-24, 1970. ABC televised three prime-time environmental specials, and CBS’ Walter Cronkite broadcast, “Earth Day: A Question of Survival.” Even Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood programs focused on the environment that week.

 Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson delivered a major speech in the U.S. Senate in January 1970 presenting his “environmental agenda”—the first was for a constitutional amendment that read, “Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States and every state shall guarantee that right.”

 Senator Gaylord Nelson formulated the idea for Earth Day after touring damage caused by a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. He floated the idea to a small conservation group in Seattle on Sept. 20, 1969. The Associated Press and United Press picked up the story and newspapers across the country reprinted Nelson’s proposal. By October 10, Time magazine notified millions of American’s about the teach-in in an article titled “America the Befouled.”

 Senator Gaylord Nelson made Earth Day bipartisan by picking Rep. Paul McCloskey, a California Republican, to co-chair the steering committee. McCloskey had spearheaded an effort to stop the Atomic Energy Commission from building power lines in scenic areas and fought construction of a quarry and garbage dump and development in San Francisco Bay. In 1972 McCloskey campaigned as an anti-war candidate against President Nixon in the Republican presidential primary.

 Earth Day is credited with making the 1970s the “Environmental Decade” by establishing the bulk of today’s environmental regulations through the passage of 28 pieces of legislation, including the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and amendments strengthening the Clean and Water Acts—in addition to many more laws passed to protect natural resources and expand protection of public lands.

This was compiled with the help of Mark Peterson, executive director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.

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