Gass column: Celebrate Earth Day's 50th anniversary

Earth Day is a testimony to and the result of the many freedoms we have. Celebrate accordingly with an act of conservation

Chris Gass, Minnesota GreenCorps Service member, works on tree survey. Submitted photo
Chris Gass, Minnesota GreenCorps Service member, works on tree survey. Submitted photo

Anniversaries are special occasions. They have us stop and appreciate the perseverance of something through time and admire progress made, pitfalls overcome and moments of success.

They come, of course, in many different shapes and sizes. Some celebrate personal events like wedding anniversaries while others observe national independence or notable social advancements.

Those especially that mark an instance for a new course taken or change in public value are anniversaries we give attention. In a sense, celebrating the anniversary is intended to make us reflect on the progress made and peer back into the past before such change, taking time to relish just how far we’ve come.

Well, I’m here to bring attention to a day that marks one of the greatest shifts in values in the U.S. and across the globe. The advent of this day unified what were singular and separate efforts into a collaboration towards a shared purpose. It became a catalyst for actions that forever redefined our course and shaped not only our values but also the expectations of business and policy.

Ironically though, we don’t often give it the attention it deserves nor understand its full significance. You might be surprised to know that of all things I’m referring to, it happens to be the anniversary of Earth Day, an occasion that occurred 50 years ago on April 22, 1970.


I’m certain I just earned eye rolls from some, but let me explain its significance and what resulted.

For context, Earth Day followed on the heels of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in California — the third largest oil spill in U.S. history — where raw oil killed over 10,000 large sea animals (dolphins, seals, etc.) and devastated a cherished coastline. This, and several prior notable incidents, created a demand for measures and a framework to prevent accidents that maim nature.

Fast forward slightly over a year to an organized event that rallied 20 million citizens (10% of our population at the time) to advocate for change. Policy-makers on both sides of the aisle listed to the calls.

In less than two years, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and an expansion of the Clean Air Act of 1963 were passed. Congress provided not only guidelines but also enabled adoption by states and gave a framework for development over time. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established to provide a centralized force to assess policy, oversee changes and developments, and to work with states to meet common needs.

I cannot overstate enough, Earth Day initiated a change that was non-existent before it. It celebrates the day when American citizens united to say that environmental stewardship is a national priority and that there is value in conservation. Most impressively, this resonated with much of the world and started a path to better protection around the globe, which the U.S. served as a model for.

Earth Day is a testimony to and the result of the many freedoms we have: to right protest, to collaborate, to speak freely and to initiate change for the better.

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, look at it not as a day simply of passion for the environment, but as a shining example of the rights we have in directing our nation. It certainly has earned its place as a national holiday. Celebrate accordingly with an act in conservation.

Chris Gass is the conservation education and outreach coordinator for the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District. For more information about the Carlton SWCD and any of the staff's or supervisors' work with natural resources, call 218-384-3891. Find more information about Carlton SWCD on Facebook and at

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