Thursday, April 21, 2005

Earth Day and the Importance of Activism

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Tomorrow will mark the 35th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the day in 1970 that twenty million Americans came out to move environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. The depth and complexity of the environmental challenges we face today are no less sobering, but it’s important to remember that those challenges are not all the same because we have made some important gains since that first Earth Day. As we look to the future, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that people in east central Illinois have participated in and benefited from environmental activism.

Have you visited Busey Woods in Urbana recently? When you are there next, take time to remember that this fifty-nine-acre remnant of what was once a ten square-mile forest was slated for development as an industrial park in the 1960s. Before that, it was used as a dumping ground for the rubble of buildings cleared to make way for Lincoln Square Mall. Had concerned citizens not come together to fight for its preservation, there would be no Busey Woods today. Now part of the Urbana Park district, the woods continues to provide a haven for wildlife and a nearby retreat for urban dwellers. It is also home to numerous programs conducted by the Park District that provide schoolchildren an important connection with the natural world.

Have you enjoyed the sight of woodland wildflowers blooming in the bottomland forest at the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello this spring? Do you hike, bike, hunt, fish, or canoe on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River? As with Busey Woods, but on a much larger scale, those places were also preserved for recreation and for ecological values by the direct action of concerned citizens and the political leaders who came to share their perspective.

Even now, the environment of east central Illinois continues to benefit from the involvement of active citizens. With prompting from a variety of groups, the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation district has begun to restore sixty-seven acres of wetlands adjacent to the Salt Fork River near St. Joseph. In addition, the Soil and Water Conservation District has worked in cooperation with the Barnhart family to re-establish a tract of tallgrass prairie on Old Church Road east of Urbana, similar to the one developed by the Champaign County Audubon Society and the Urbana Park District at Meadowbrook Park. The Urbana Park District also has its own wetland restoration project underway adjacent to the Saline Branch on Perkins Road.

Of course gains in habitat protection and restoration are part of a larger picture; locally and nationally we continue to benefit from hard won legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. And we should take heart from the fact that environmental values affect the way individuals and institutions make decisions about how they use energy and other resources.

None of this is to say there’s smooth sailing ahead. But as we confront urban sprawl and our dependence on harmful chemicals, as we face the threats posed by invasive species and global warming we do well to keep in mind that environmental activism can and does make a difference.