On the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) I was four and a half years out of Forestry School working as an Area Forester for the New Jersey Bureau of Forestry in the Kittatinny Mountains of that state. My busy work schedule was filled with preparing forest management plans for dozens of forest owners and helping them manage their woodlands by marking their timber, precommercial thinnings, and preparing reforestation plans.
I received two Earth Day speaking invitations. One from the High School my younger sister and brother were attending and the other from the Newton, New Jersey Rotary Club. I had not given many public presentations at that point in my career and was quite nervous. Back in those days the only AV equipment available was the overhead projector and 35 MM projector. Fortunately, I had a pretty good slide collection, so I pulled together a Kodak carousel reel of slides and headed back to high school. I recall my remarks covered wildfires, Smokey Bear, wildlife, trash disposal (at that time New York City was loading its garbage into barges and towing it out in the Atlantic to be dumped and hypodermic needles were washing up on New Jersey’s beaches) air pollution (New Jersey oil refineries were frequently casting a foul stench over Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City) and the absence of recycling. I described the lakes in the high country of the Adirondack Mountains devoid of trout and aquatic life because of the “acid rain” from industrial complex emissions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
It was a Junior-Senior High School and the auditorium was not big enough to handle all the students, so I had to repeat my presentation. I first spoke to the senior high students; they were attentive, and my presentation was well received. Next were the junior high students (referred to as the “little kids” by my sister who was in the senior high) and before I could finish up they lost interest, ignored me, and pandemonium ensued. I was amazed that neither the principal nor the teachers made any attempt to quiet them down. It was a humbling experience to realize that I did not have the ability to keep an auditorium full of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders interested in my presentation!
After the high school experience, I approached the Rotary Club presentation a few days later with some degree of trepidation but I need not have worried because things there went much better. I did not use slides during the Rotary presentation but covered some of same environmental issues with some local examples (like the farm and industrial pollution of the Paulenskill River, a trout stream that ran through Sussex County).
I recall providing a description of the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio that had repeatedly caught fire because of petrochemical pollution as it flowed into Lake Erie. I described Lake Erie as a dead polluted wasteland only capable of sustaining algae blooms and trash fish species.
I finished up my Rotary presentation with a question. I asked whether the Rotarians felt as a nation we would finally start to acknowledge the damaging environmental course we were on or whether we would continue to ignore the air and water pollution issues and our bodies would simply adapt and morph in way that would let us survive the pollution like the carp living in the fetid depths of Lake Erie had done. There were no audience comments and the meeting emcee simply said, “Well, you have certainly given us something to think about.”
I’m happy to report that because of mandated clean air and water legislation passed over the last 50 years Lake Erie is again a viable sport fishery with swimmable water beaches. The acidity levels in many of the Adirondack high country lakes have improved enough to support viable Brook Trout populations. And we haven’t had to adapt to a polluted environment like the carp that lived in the fetid depths of Lake Erie 50 years ago.
Author Richard Lewis is Vice President of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Past President of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association. Richard, his wife Jakie, and their two dogs live four miles west of Gettysburg in the Adams County, Pennsylvania countryside where they enjoy growing fields of wild flowers, taking their grandchildren on walks, and watching the deer, turkeys, fox, mink, muskrats, beavers, kingfishers, bald eagles, waterfowl, and other wildlife along Marsh Creek that flows 75 yards from their front doorstep.
This blog post was originally a part of the EarthDayPA50.org website, created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020. The website has since been retired but the sentiment – and our appreciation for our partners like Richard – go on!