Earth Day 2002 far removed from first celebration

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   On April 22, 1970, 20 million people celebrated the first Earth Day. There were protests on college and university campuses, environmental teach-ins across America, and a national unity akin to that forged after Sept. 11.
   As a result, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency with its mission to protect the environment and public health. As a result, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were passed.
   "The 1970s must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and our living environment ... it is literally now or never," Nixon said.
   Gaylord Nelson, organizer of the first Earth Day, in an April 1980 article in the EPA Journal, said, "My primary objective in planning Earth Day was to show the political leadership of the nation that there was broad and deep support for the environmental movement. ... I was not quite prepared for the overwhelming response that occurred on that day.
   "Two thousand colleges and universities, 10,000 high schools and grade schools, and several thousand communities -- in all, more than 20 million Americans -- participated in one of the most exciting and significant grassroots efforts in the history of this country," Nelson wrote.
   This Earth Day, EPA will focus on the President's Clear Skies Initiative, which EPA says sets stringent emissions caps for power plants for three air pollutants: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury.
   Critics, among them former Vice President Al Gore, however, say the initiative actually will increase air pollution by permitting more emissions than current law allows.
   "This administration has consistently sold out America's future in return for short-term political gains," Gore told The New York Times. Gore was to be at Vanderbilt University in Nashville this afternoon for an Earth Day discussion.
   Locally, Tusculum College planned to mark its third annual celebration with guest speakers, roadside trash pickup, canoeing and hiking, and exhibits from area organizations.
   On Saturday, Mynatt Park in Gatlinburg was the site of a special 3 p.m. ceremony during which everyone was invited to hold hands in a circle for one minute with silence for cooperation and peace. Gatlinburg and its sister city, Vero Beach, Fla., held ceremonies at the same time.
   Last weekend, Christians gathered in Chattanooga for the 8th annual EarthCare Christian Environmental Stewardship Conference, a time when Christians who care about creation come together to fellowship. This year's theme, "Faith, Health, and the Environment" explored the importance of faith-based environmental concern.
   Locally, there were few observances planned. Gary Barrigar, ecology teacher at Elizabethton High School, said he believes there is less emphasis on Earth Day this year than last.
   "Usually as Earth Day approaches, you can see specials on TV and so forth. Teaching ecology, I'm always ready to tape these things. But I could only find one program, and it was a half-hour program. I think it is kind of sad."
   Barrigar said he believes the Sept. 11 terrorist attack has shifted the public's attention from the environment. While terrorism must be dealt with, he said, "I think we shouldn't lose our focus in terms of the environment, too. What I really do believe is we need to be making every day Earth Day, as they say." On Sunday, the church Barrigar attends marked Earth Day with a meditation. Wednesday, Barrigar's students will compete in the annual Envirothon.
   "My students and I do things all the time. It's not like we're not being involved with the Earth. We've got one project going where we're helping to restore Buffalo Creek, which is one of the streams that runs through Elizabethton," Barrigar said.
   The school is participating in projects with Trout Unlimited, TVA, and the county Agricultural Extension Office. The Buffalo Creek project will be to provide fencing at a local farm to keep cattle out of the creek and to restore the creek bank. "The cattle have free access to the creek all up and down through it. It runs right through the middle of the pasture."
   Barrigar said he and his students have gone out about four times to test the water and gather data on the creek. So far, readings for E-coli have been high, he said. "I've requested that the state put it on their 303D report, which means that it is a stream of concern."
   He received a reply from the state on Friday, requesting more information.
   "Buffalo Creek runs through Lions Field and into the Watauga River, so it will affect the water quality of the Watauga River. It also runs into the Trophy Trout section of the Watauga," Barrigar said. Trout Unlimited recently received $7,000 toward the project from a grant Barrigar helped write.