WHAT DOES EARTH DAY MEAN TO YOU?
By Timothy S. Jacobson
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”
— Gaylord Nelson
Marking the birth of the modern environmental movement
“Each year, Earth Day -- April 22 -- marks the anniversary of what many consider the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970...
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. “Environment” was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news. Although mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental concerns, the stage had been set for change by the publication of Rachel Carson's New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. The book represented a watershed moment for the modern environmental movement, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries and, up until that moment, more than any other person, Ms. Carson raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.
Earth Day 1970 capitalized on the emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns front and center. “
How are we doing?
According to a recent newspaper story, we can celebrate unprecedented levels of recycling. And our air, land and water are healthier than they were when Earth Day was first celebrated 44 years ago, largely thanks to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. http://lacrossetribune.com/news/local/earth-air-and-water-how-are-we-doing/article_f3c7ca01-39ca-5b7d-b3c4-175a5a2cfe7d.html. That same article points out that soil conservation practices have improved the land — and by extension the streams, lakes and rivers — since the dust bowl era of the 1930s. However, the number of impaired waters has grown nearly 63 percent since Wisconsin began the list in 1998. Some rivers, lakes and streams have been removed since listing, but each year more are added — the proposed 2014 list includes 186 new waters. As for groundwater, the volatile organic compounds that were leaching into wells from landfills and gas stations aren’t nearly the threat they were in the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean our drinking water is any cleaner. Today, major water quality threats come from the fertilizers and pesticides applied to farm fields, as well as problems with manure containment systems from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The hypoxia or dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the result. Unfortunately, there seems to be no political will to put sensible regulations in place to protect the quality of our water from nonpoint source pollution.
What about our land?
While we have improved many soil conservation practices over the decades, partially through programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), we’ve also regressed a lot as commodity prices have spiked. Since 2007, we’ve suffered a staggering, multi-million-acre loss of land that had been enrolled in CRP. According to an article by agriculture researcher Kay McDonald, the amount of land enrolled in CRP, at 27.1 million acres, is down by 26 percent or 9.7 million acres in the past five years, to a 25-year low.
Mark Ackelson, President Emeritus of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, points out that “the land had to be highly erodible or a [stream] buffer to get into CRP in the first place. If they go in production and the land is removed from permanent cover, it becomes vulnerable to erosion.”
There’s a lot at stake, particularly with the rugged Driftless Area landscape of the Upper Mississippi River region, in terms of the water we drink, and the global climate and environment. One only needs to look at a photo of the results of over-farming and poor farming practices in the Coon Valley, Wis. area during the early 1930s to see how farmland can become a wasteland of erosion. Drinking water and streams are threatened with nitrate and pesticide pollution, too.
An equally huge problem is the loss of native wildlife habitat and farmland to development. For example, total Wisconsin farmland loss between 1990 and 2002 was 888,000 acres, or five percent of the 17.6 million acres of land in farms reported in 1990. The state was fourth in the nation in prime farmland converted to other uses from 2002 to 2007 with 61,800 acres. And each year, two million acres are lost to development nationwide. This loss cannot be sustained by the earth and its inhabitants forever.
Permanent conservation easements provide another alternative or supplement to the benefits of programs like CRP. Conservation easements between rural landowners and nonprofit land trusts are permanent, with the conservation parameters made into fixed deed restrictions that bind not only the current owner, but all future owners of the land. Easements can be tailored for individual farms so that less-erodible land can be maintained with proper contour farming practices while steep slopes and buffers along waterways can be made off-limits to row crops. In contrast, CRP contracts are for a limited term of years, and farmers can escape the conservation restrictions by paying a penalty, which many are now doing as a result of skyrocketing farmland and commodity prices.
The good news is that nonprofit land trusts have stepped up their efforts to conserve an average of one million acres a year! Land trusts, collectively, have protected more land than that in our national parks, and it’s all done through voluntary transactions with willing landowners. This is a win-win for all.
We’ve made a lot of environmental progress since 1970. We also still have a lot of work to do. Earth Day reminds us of where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s good to be reminded of what we can achieve to protect our precious earth.
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Tim Jacobson, CEO of Visjonær Consulting, has served as a board member and executive of a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2014, the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his organizational consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2014, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.