Viewpoint: Students, faculty marked first Earth Day

The idea of engagement in environmental issues caught on with students and faculty on campuses throughout the country, and UND was no exception.

Robert Seabloom
Robert Seabloom

I was sitting around looking out at a recent snowstorm and thinking ahead to late April – specifically April 22, Earth Day. And that took me back.

The first Earth Day was proposed by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who suggested the idea as a nationwide environmental teach-in to be held April 22, 1970. When 20 million people turned out on the streets that day, it set a mark and it remains the largest single-day protest in U.S history.

Those were heady times, raising the nation’s environmental consciousness. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” resulted in a furor on the use of DDT and other pesticides. Other issues that suddenly became prominent included air and water pollution, nuclear weapons testing, wilderness degradation and world overpopulation.

The idea of engagement in environmental issues caught on with students and faculty on campuses throughout the country, and UND was no exception. A group of UND students formed an organization, “Students For Environmental Defense,” to sponsor a major environmental teach-in. Several of us faculty helped with advice, but the project was definitely student inspired, led, organized and implemented.

Speakers came to campus, symposia were held, booths and environmental displays were set up in the Memorial Union, an environmental film festival was held in the Union ballroom. Earlier, the Dakota Student published an eight-page supplement titled, “What Price, Progress?” As word spread, several of us faculty were invited to speak to community groups in Grand Forks and elsewhere. I was flying in those days, and in one day, I gave talks in Minot, Williston and Jamestown. That was a long day.


There was one episode that I have never forgotten. Wetlands in North Dakota was a hot topic (it still is), and a symposium was held in the Union ballroom with invited speakers. Wetlands preservation in the Devils Lake region was especially controversial and Phil Aus, the regional wetlands manager with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was to present his views.

As the group was gathering, Phil came up to me and said he hadn’t gotten approval for his talk but decided that he needed to give it anyway, risking getting into trouble. And there in the front row was a group of politicians from Devils Lake. He gave it and, predictably, the politicians protested to his superiors. The outcome was that Phil received a written reprimand and a transfer out of the state.

Space doesn’t allow naming other courageous professionals of the time who suffered for their stands on wetland preservation. Subsequently, The North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society presented Phil with its highest award for his professionalism and courage.

In my 35-year tenure at UND I cannot recall any environmental event approaching the one in 1970, and I wish that effort had continued. A couple of life lessons emerge. Students can have an amazing capacity for leadership, passion, organization, and commitment to resolving an issue. And sometimes it takes a lot to stand up for your ideals.

Robert W. Seabloom is professor emeritus, Department of Biology, at UND. This letter is the personal viewpoint of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of UND, the North Dakota University System or the state of North Dakota.

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