The Modern Environmental Movement | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Modern Environmental Movement

The Modern Environmental Movement | Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin has played a major and highly visible part in the development of environmental protection in the twentieth century, including a key role in forming the national organizations of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society and in creating Earth Day in 1970. Although the first protests against pollution, first efforts to conserve natural resources, and first campaigns to save forests all occurred in the late 19th century, the modern environmental movement that emerged after 1950 had different social roots and objectives than the conservation movement that preceded it.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the conservation movement had stressed natural resources as commodities to produce material goods, and called for more efficient management of both renewable and nonrenewable resources. The environmental movement, on the other hand, arose from growing interest in outdoor recreation in a more natural environment and focused on resources -- air, water, and land -- that would enhance the quality of life. Rather than focusing on the efficient development of exploitable resources, the environmental movement prized these resources for aesthetic, moral or spiritual reasons.

One of the most notable figures of the modern environmental movement was Aldo Leopold. Leopold inspired many environmentalists to appreciate wildlife and to use the land sensibly and sensitively. Born in Iowa in 1887, Leopold developed many of his insights while spending time at his family cabin, the "shack," near Baraboo. He carefully observed and recorded every detail of the plants and animals around him, recognizing how everything in nature was connected. Serving on the Wisconsin Conservation Commission in the 1940s, Leopold helped to formulate policies that emphasized the management of land not just for commercial uses but also for the benefit of humans, animals, and plants. Leopold's most famous book, "A Sand County Almanac", contains short essays that describe a year spent in his Wisconsin River shack. It was published in 1949, a year after his death. Leopold's work helped give rise to a new attitude toward wildlife as an object of observation rather than of sport hunting.

Leopold's ideas characterized the shift toward preservation, appreciation, and protection of nature of the emerging environmental movement in the 1940s and 1950s. This new perspective on animals and natural resources ultimately led to the federal endangered species act, state sponsored wildlife programs, a heightened interest in habitats for plants and animals, and a focus on biological diversity. The environmental movement's emphasis on the preservation of specific resources in a more natural environment led to the creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, the National Trails System in 1968, and to a public purchase program in the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1964.

In the 1960s, Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson established a national reputation as a leader in environmental protection with his advocacy of Wisconsin's pioneering Outdoor Recreation Act. The act, passed in 1961, pledged $50 million over the next decade toward environmental planning, land acquisition, and easements along state highways to insure scenic values. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, Nelson proposed a constitutional amendment stating that "Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment." Borrowing a tactic of the anti-Vietnam war protests, the teach-in, Nelson suggested a full day of teaching and learning about the environment in a 1969 speech in Seattle. Nelson believed that if people knew more about the environment, they would take better care of it and demand better protection. His efforts led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

In response to Nelson's efforts, Congress created a governmental agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to repair existing environmental damage and to establish policies to keep the environment safe and clean. They also passed the Water Quality Improvement Act and the Air Quality Control Act to make clean water and air universally available.

Wisconsin waterways have been the focus of many more recent environmental projects and debates. Dams built by lumber companies to store logs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been removed from many rivers, restoring natural wildlife and plants as well as aiding the economic revitalization of waterfront communities. The removal of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the Fox River, however, has proved more contentious. Although the U.S. government banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1977, the toxic chemicals remained in the soil long after their release by seven paper companies. Despite the known health-risks associated with PCBs, cleanup efforts and goals have sparked controversy between the EPA, the Department of Natural Resources, and environmental organizations.

Wisconsin has long placed a priority on environmental health and safety. The voluntary Green Tier Law, for example, rewards environmental performance that goes beyond the minimum standards for air, water, land, and natural resources required by law. Green Tier allows the state to distinguish between good environmental performers and those performing at or near the regulatory minimums, and provides incentives for businesses to improve their existing environmental programs. Other programs, like the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board, provide Wisconsin citizens with additional ways to maintain the state's long history of citizen involvement in environmental education, leadership, and reform.

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[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Nelson, Gaylord. How the First Earth Day Came About Envirolink]