The year was 1970 and Chicago, like cities across the country, had been marked by a decade of massive change and tension in the cultural consciousness. An air of protest moved through the country, as individuals were mobilized by the sight of horrifying images from the Vietnam War, and protests swept through Chicago at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Racial tensions were high, as the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that same year destabilized the spirit of the Black Chicagoans and ignited riots on the West Side that left entire neighborhoods in ashes. Redlining divided the city even deeper and white flight and sprawl moved wealthier, middle-class to the suburbs of every major city.
Yet, among the many racial and political issues that divided many Americans during the 60’s, one issue united the country: the need for environmental protection. Unlike today, where environmental issues have become largely bipartisan, the first Earth Day brought together people from both sides of the political aisle due to the recognition that pollution and waste needed firm regulations.
This coming Saturday, April 22, we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the first Earth Day, when Senator Gaylord Nelson created an official day of action to force environmental issues and the urgent need to create regulatory mechanisms that protect the health of our planet into the national consciousness and government agenda. On that day in 1970, Openlands was a young organization at the cutting edge of environmentalism. Prior to Openlands’ establishment in 1963, there were no conservation organizations focused on land preservation and environmental protection in large cities. The beginning of the 1970’s marked the beginning of a decade that would shape environmental policy, both nationally and locally in Chicago, and set the stage for Openlands’ 60 years of conservation leadership.
The first Earth Day was pivotal in bringing together millions of Americans and the previously fragmented environmental movement. Here in Chicago, Openlands played a key role in helping organize the city’s first Earth Day, which included plans that spanned a whole week and that ended with a rally at the Civic Center, now Daley Plaza.
Prior to April 22, 1970, while there were scattered activist efforts to address certain environmental issues, such as stopping the use of deadly pesticides, as illuminated by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the reduction of city smog, there was no official movement that brought together all environmental issues under one umbrella or that supported the creation of green organizations and careers.
In Chicago, concerns about pesticides, pollution, sprawl patterns were developing, especially due to the expansion of highways, which led to the development of prime farmland and prairies. Prior to the founding of Openlands, there were no environmental organizations in the Chicago region to address these issues. That is, until George Overton, who was involved in fresh air camps that exposed inner city youth to nature and founding President Jeffrey Short, a conservationist focused on saving biodiversity and rare prairie ecosystems from extinction, came together to seek the preservation and development of recreation and conservation resources in northeastern Illinois.
Originally established as a project of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago in a state with no official land use policy, Openlands originated as an environmental hub where people could turn to for taking environmental action. In its first decade, Openlands took on significant projects in Illinois and beyond, such as the preservation of Beall Woods, a prime oak-hickory forest that is now a state park, and the protection of the Indiana Dunes. Openlands also played a key role in laying the groundwork for the Illinois Prairie Path, which was the first greenway plan in the nation, the promotion of the McHenry County Conservation District, and support for preservation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal corridor. However, while Openlands was beginning to take action in the Chicago region, on a national scale, environmental issues were on the political backburner, and there was no Clean Air or Clean Water Act and little regulation of hazardous waste.
That all changed when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was concerned about sprawl and the destruction of open space in his home state, conceived of a day of national environmental awareness. Because Senator Nelson was unable to push environmental issues to the top of the national agenda, he hired young staffers and used inspiration from the anti-war protest teach-ins to organize the first Earth Day. His office took out a full-page ad in the New York Times advertising the first official day of action, and more than 12,000 events took place across the country. As many as 20 million Americans (every 1 in 10) got involved, including the closing of 5th Avenue in New York City, which drew 200,000 people, and a teach-in at the University of Michigan, which drew 15,000. Thousands of events took place in communities across the country at churches, schools, and in front of government buildings.
In Chicago, every college hosted events, and Oak Park River Forest High School hosted an entire week of Earth Day events, which Openlands staff participated in. Earth Day changed the course of many Americans lives and of national policy. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, the first Earth Day was incredibly empowering and gave individuals a sense they could do anything, and it demonstrated the power of collective action. Organizing large events and coming together with others who share concern for an issue serves as a profound educational experience and can motivate individuals to work together to make lasting change.
In many ways, Openlands was created out of the shifting cultural consciousness that birthed Earth Day, and since its founding has been committed to connecting people to nature in the Chicago region and serving as a convener and facilitator that transcends geopolitical boundaries.
At a time when climate issues present a very real existential threat to the present and future of biodiversity and humanity, it is easy to get overwhelmed about the scale of change required to change our trajectory. However, looking back at the first Earth Day is one way to maintain hope and momentum. Americans from all political backgrounds came together and made commitments to do something different and create change.