The dawn of Earth Day

GREEN ISSUE: The largest secular holiday in the world was born in 1970 — and its chief organizer has lessons for the movement 40 years later
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tredmond@sfbg.com

GREEN ISSUE The heavens welcomed Earth Day to America. All over the country, April 22, 1970 dawned clear and sunny; mild weather made it even easier to bring people into the streets. The Capitol Mall was packed, and so many members of Congress were making speeches and appearing at events that both houses adjourned for the day.

Mayors, governors, aldermen, village trustees, elementary school kids, Boy Scout troops, labor unions, college radicals, and even business groups participated. In fact, the only organization in the nation that actively opposed Earth Day was the Daughters of the American Revolution, which warned ominously that "subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them."

By nightfall, more than 20 million people had participated in the First National Environmental Teach-In, as the event was formally known. It established the environmental movement in the United States and helped spur the passage of numerous laws and the creation of hundreds of activist groups.

It was, by almost all accounts, a phenomenal success, an event that dwarfed the largest single-day civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the era — and the person who ran it, 25-year-old Denis Hayes, wasn't happy.

His concern with the nascent movement back then says a lot about where environmentalism is 40 years later.

Gaylord Nelson, a mild-mannered U.S. senator from Wisconsin, came up with the idea of Earth Day on a flight from Santa Barbara to Oakland. Nelson was the kind of guy who doesn't get elected to the Senate these days — a polite, friendly small-town guy who was anything but a firebrand.

A balding, 52-year-old World War II veteran who survived Okinawa, Nelson was a Democrat and generally a liberal vote, but he got along fine with the die-hard conservatives. He kept a fairly low profile, and did a lot of his work behind the scenes.

But long before it was popular, Nelson was an ardent environmentalist — and he was always looking for ways to bring the future of the planet into the popular consciousness.

In August 1969, Nelson was on a West Coast speaking tour — and one of his mandatory stops was the small coastal city that seven months earlier had become ground zero for the environmental movement. Indeed, a lot of historians say that Earth Day 1970 was the coming out party for modern environmentalism — but the spark that made it possible, the event that turned observers into activists, took place Jan. 28, 1969 in Santa Barbara.

About 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, a photographer from the Santa Barbara News Press got the word that something had gone wrong on one of the Union Oil drilling platforms in the channel just offshore. The platforms were fairly new — the federal government had sold drilling rights in the area in February 1968 for $603 million, and Union was in the process of drilling its fourth offshore well. The company had convinced the U.S. Geological Survey to relax the safety rules for underwater rigs, saying there was no threat of a spill.

But shortly after the drill bit struck oil 3,478 feet beneath the surface, the rig hit a snag — and when the workers got the equipment free, oil began exploding out. Within two weeks, more than 3 million gallons of California crude was on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and a lot of it had washed ashore, fouling the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara and fueling an angry popular backlash nationwide.

Nelson received an overwhelming reception at his Santa Barbara talk — and horrified as he was by the spill, he was glad that an environmental concern was suddenly big news.