2010 Marks 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

While tens of millions of people from Poughkeepsie, New York to Papua New Guinea will take part in events to mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this April 22nd, the story behind the first Earth Day begins with a single individual. In the early 1960s, when Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, first hatched the idea that began the modern environmental movement, there was little public awareness of the fragile state of the planet. The nation's roads were filled with cars sporting massive, leaded-gas-guzzling V8 engines and its factories were spewing smoke and sludge into the air with little regard for environmental consequences.

Nelson had been working to bring national attention to a wide range of environmental issues for several years before launching the first-ever Earth Day in 1970. His early efforts included persuading President John F. Kennedy to embark on a five-day, 11-state "conservation tour" in 1963. While the President's trip failed to generate interest on Capitol Hill, Nelson continued to press the issue during his own speaking tours.

It was during one such tour in 1969 that Nelson formed the idea that would become Earth Day. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War protests that were taking place across the nation, he began to organize a day of protest to express concern about the state of the environment. The idea took off, and on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans representing groups and communities from every corner of the country joined in what Nelson called "a nationwide environmental 'teach-in.'"

Earth Day 1970 not only ushered in a new era of support for the environment, but brought about the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of key legislation, including the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. In 1995, Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the highest honor given to U.S. civilians -- in recognition of his role as the founder of Earth Day.

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