A View of Earth Day 40 Years Later

The annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America will be held, this coming June, in Rochester, Minnesota. Assuming I go, it’ll be a trip back home, as Rochester is about 30 miles from my hometown of Zumbrota, a small town that got its name from the Zumbro River, which wanders through southeastern Minnesota on its way to the Mississippi River.

A part of the conference program that caught my eye was trips to trout streams of the area, plus smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro River. Previously, I’d also heard from others about great smallmouth fishing on the Zumbro.

The reason I have to do a double-take about smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro is that when I was a kid there weren’t, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, any sport fish on our local river, and certainly nobody was doing guided trips on the Zumbro. Nobody went fishing on the Zumbro, except for rough fish, such as carp or suckers.

Why wasn’t there sport fishing on my hometown stream? That’s an easy one. Pollution.
Just for starters, my hometown and neighboring communities all dumped raw sewage in the river. There’s a local cheese factory in town where most of the local dairy farmers sell their milk and cream. My dad made trips to town every few days to fill old oil drums with whey, the watery part of milk that gets separated in the cheese-making process. The cheese factory gave it to any farmer, free for the taking, and my dad fed it to the pigs on our farm. What the cheese factory couldn’t give away went straight into the river, which was, conveniently, just a block away, and the cheese factory had a direct sewer line that fed into the river.

The town also had a dump right on the banks of the river, and no, it didn’t rate being called a sanitary landfill, and you’d better believe a lot of what went to the dump ended up in the river.

In the context of the times, there was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about this pollution. In 1969, Time magazine reported on the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, Ohio, “Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.’ It is also — literally — a fire hazard.” In fact, over a hundred year period, the river caught on fire a number of times, including 1969.

Closer to home, the Yellowstone River is considered one of Montana’s premier recreational rivers and is celebrated for a premier trout fishery in the upper river. In the lower river, downstream from Billings, there’s a thriving fishery for paddlefish, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger.

Yet, as many people will recall, at one time the community of Gardner dumped raw sewage into the Yellowstone, as did the city of Livingston. My wife grew up in Glendive in eastern Montana, and when she was a kid nobody fished on the river—because of the pollution.

What happened to restore these rivers and fisheries? We can look directly at Earth Day, which happened the first time on April 22, 1970, just 40 years ago this past week, and a grass roots movement that led to the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the framework to create wilderness areas, as well as creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—all achievements of a Republican administration.

Last week, public television broadcast a documentary on the history of Earth Day, with a narrator noting that while President Nixon “didn’t have an environmental bone in his body,” he certainly had a fine sense of how political winds were blowing. And that’s how the bi-partisan legislation that has done so much to restore America’s rivers happened.

From today’s perspective of perpetual congressional deadlock, it seems even more amazing.