'Father of Earth Day' has grim view of environmental future

May 17, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The "father of Earth Day" gave a report on the environmental effort from his point of view Wednesday, and it was not promising.

Gaylord Nelson, a former congressman and Wisconsin governor credited with starting the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, expressed concern about the world's growing population and urged Americans to demand that the environment receive a higher priority in the upcoming presidential race.

Nelson said a recent statement from the National Academy of Sciences predicts that a large portion of the world will spiral into depression if the world population continues to grow at its current pace.

Another report issued by the Rockefeller Commission in 1972 said that adding another person to the U.S. population will do nothing for the country, Nelson said. That year, the country had a population of about 200 million.


"Seventy million more people later and we haven't even begun to discuss it," said the 82-year-old Wisconsin native.

Nelson spoke at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's National Conservation Training Center, where about 300 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's refuge biologists are attending a week-long conference.

If the U.S. does not find a way to stabilize its population, it could grow to another 50 million people within 60 or 70 years, Nelson said.

To serve the population, the country will have to build twice as many airports and schools and have twice as many cars, Nelson said. In fact, every type of infrastructure will have to be doubled, he said.

Nelson questioned how that will affect a U.S. citizen's ability to freely move about in a country that still has about 26 percent of its land in open space.

Nelson said countries must realize that healthy rivers, lakes, oceans, wildlife habitats and scenic areas are vital to supporting their economies.

"Take it all away and what do you have? A wasteland," said Nelson, who supports putting tighter controls on immigration to control the U.S. population.

Nelson asked how long the world is going to pollute the air and overcut forests before countries go bankrupt.

"We're all on the way. Of course, some countries will get there ahead of others," he said.

Nelson said the president of the United States should give an annual report to Congress each year about the state of the environment. Then Congress can hold hearings on the most pressing issues facing the country.

In the upcoming presidential race, each candidate should be asked if he would be willing to give such a report, Nelson told biologists.

Nelson said the hearings could concentrate on issues such as prohibiting use of all-terrain vehicles on national park lands, which he supports.

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe a healthy environment is important, and they support tax increases to meet that end. But when the public realizes that a healthy environment will also mean owning cars that get at least 40 or 50 miles per gallon on the highway, they are likely to oppose the efforts, Nelson said.

"They don't know yet what it takes. The public has to learn we are losing in the long term," Nelson said.

Nelson and the audience also talked about other environmental issues in Florida and mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, which Nelson called a "great, great tragedy." Mountain top removal mining involves shaving off the tops of mountains to retrieve coal.

In 1970, Nelson tried to revive interest in the environment by orchestrating a "teach-in" on ecology issues. His fund-raising efforts resulted in the first Earth Day.

In his first speech as a congressman, he argued against detergents in the nation's waters and he introduced the first legislation to ban DDT following publication of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring."

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