Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day 2016: Bring Constructive Passion Back To The Environmental Movement

These remarks were delivered Thursday at the 10th Annual Conference of The Society of Women Environmental Professionals - Capital Chapter at Central Penn College Conference Center near Harrisburg by David E. Hess who served as Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection for Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker.
The remarks touch on the challenges faced by the environmental movement in the 46 years since the first Earth Day.
The text of the remarks follow--
This year we celebrate the 46th anniversary of Earth Day and in those 46 years much has changed.  
Since 1970 we have institutionalized the environmental revolution, but now we have to defend and expand it.
In 1970 I was a high school senior who researched environmental issues by going to the library, using the card catalog and searching through stacks of paper magazines and newspapers or by watching the daily 30 minutes of network news on TV or by reading the 2 daily newspapers delivered to our door.
I recycled newspapers, bottles and cans once a month at a local K-Mart parking lot.
I reported a contractor for burning construction debris in violation of state law by taking pictures with my Kodak camera, taking the film to a drug store, waiting a week to get the pictures back so I could send them into then-DER.
Yep, much has changed.
By the way, the pictures helped me get a summer intern job with DER during my 4 years at Shippensburg.  Little did I realize then I would become Secretary a mere 30 years later.
Pennsylvanians like Rachel Carson, for whom we named the DEP/DCNR headquarters building, Bass A. Beck, Ruth Patrick, Ralph Abele, Maurice Goddard, Rosalie Edge, Joseph Rothrock, Mira Lloyd Dock, Joseph Rodale, Gifford Pinchot, Franklin Kury, Sam Morris, and contemporaries like Eleanor Winsor, Caren Glotfelty, Margaret Dunn, Bern Sweeney, Carol Collier and many others paved the way for us to be here today. [ Click Here to learn more about PA’s Conservation Heritage.]
If you don’t know who these people are, do what my Dad, an encyclopedia salesman for 25 years, always said-- look it up!
We got rid of the big chunks floating in the air.  The big chunks floating in our water.  They no longer dredge the Susquehanna River for coal fines to burn in power plants like they did when I was growing up in Lancaster and swimming in the river.
We’ve reclaimed thousands of acres of abandoned mine lands.  We preserved thousands of acres of farmland, land for recreation and open space and other lands just because we needed to protect disappearing species of animals and plants.
We recycle at the curb or at drop-off centers now, not at K-Mart.  We cleaned up hazardous waste sites.  We put brownfields back into productive use. We funded new wastewater and drinking water systems.
We gave farmers and watershed groups the tools they needed through the original Growing Greener Program to cleanup their farms and the streams that ran by their houses.
DEP had funding to create a Citizen Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program in 1996 that grew to have 11,000 participants by 2002.  After that funding for the program cut dramatically.  Imagine, 11,000 volunteers who cared about their watersheds thrown away.
Companies began to understand that going green didn’t mean doing something extra; it meant savings to the bottomline in energy, water and other costs.
We educated each new year’s crop of 7th graders in stewardship, recycling and promoted an environmental ethic.
We held people, groups and businesses up as examples for others to follow in monthly Green Works For Pennsylvania cable TV programs, newspaper inserts and in online videos and features like that reached hundreds of thousands of people.
The last statewide Green Works Gazette newspaper insert we did at the end of 2002 resulted in 18,000 mail-in requests to DEP for more information about how to save energy, water, how to restore watersheds that went unanswered in 2003 with the new administration.
Never in the history of environmental education programs targeting the general public had there been such a huge response.
In the 21 months I was privileged to be Secretary of DEP, I had the opportunity to travel to all 67 counties in Pennsylvania two-and-a-half times.
I saw people who took pride in the fact they cleaned up a local stream that for 125 years had been polluted by acid mine drainage.  Now they can take their grandkids fishing.
Some of these visits were very emotional.  People had tears in their eyes talking about everything they’ve done to clean up THEIR watershed.
These were tears of joy at being able to accomplish something they never thought was remotely possible.
Has all this positive emotion and local leadership disappeared?  No.
Every year in my newsletter-- PA Environment Digest-- I pull together the stories from the past year where individuals, groups and businesses were recognized for their environmental accomplishments.
In January that list of positive stories topped 1,000 articles.
Today’s environmental and conservation heros have not gone away, they just don’t get recognized in today’s 140 characters or less media.
Somehow in the mid- 2000s, it became fashionable to back away from promoting examples of how individuals, groups and business just like you and me can really make a difference in restoring, conserving and protecting the environment.
Environmental education was cut back.  Award programs abandoned.
Suddenly it was alright and acceptable to cut environmental funding for watershed projects, land conservation and other programs that supported local groups who took the initiative to make a difference.
It was alright to spend $60 million a year in taxpayer money to support the making movies like Zack and Miri Make A Porno in Pennsylvania.
In fact, over $2.4 billion in environmental funding has been cut or diverted to other programs since 2002.  The budget signed into law in December was the 13th in a row that cut environmental funding.
But, in the face of these cuts, dedicated individuals, groups and businesses have persevered.  They continue their work.  They have never given up.
Instead they responded by being even more creative in developing local partnerships, sharing resources and as a result are still very effective.
To reverse this trend we need to regain the constructive passion of Rachel Carson, Ralph Abele, Maurice Goddard, Rosalie Edge and Ruth Patrick.
We have to decide right now that it ISN’T alright if environmental funding and staff are cut for the 14th year in a row because we’re facing “tough times.”
Times were tough when 20 people died in Donora, Pennsylvania because of air pollution.
Times were tough when the Glen Alden mine flooded the Susquehanna River with acid discharge killing hundreds of thousands of fish for the length of the lower Susquehanna.
Times were tough when you could almost walk across Presque Isle Bay because the algae blooms were so thick.
Times were tough when Pennsylvania’s entire first growth forests were clear cut and oil wells were drilled every 100 feet.
Times were tough when thousands of women and children evacuated within 10 miles of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Times were tough when DEP staff found a Bible with a note to loved-ones from one of the passengers on Flight 93.
Times were tough when DEP staff and many state, local and federal partners, engineered the rescue of nine Quecreek miners.
Don’t tell me times are tough now when you spend $60 million a year on movies.
Protecting the environment is NOT an extra.
We have to decide RIGHT NOW that it ISN’T alright if more programs designed to help people restore their own watersheds or permanently protect land in their own communities are left begging for money.
We have to decide RIGHT NOW that decision-makers should NOT be left off the hook for continuing the historic rollback of environmental programs over the last 13 years or ignoring mandates like cleaning up our rivers and streams.
We have to harness the constructive emotion we had in the past and that thousands of people have now and focus that emotion on again making a difference for the environment.
And that means making a political difference.
We need to harness and focus these voices to tell decision-makers what they have done to environmental programs over the 13 years is simply wrong.
We have suffered more than our share of cuts.
You can no longer hide behind the wall of “times are tough.”
People chose then to do the right thing, the tough thing and we have to encourage, no demand that they do it again.
Let’s bring back constructive passion and really make a difference.
But we can only do that together.
Look Back At Earth Day 2002: April 26, 2002 DEP Update.
(Photo: Circa 2002, Kettle Creek Watershed, Potter County, placing a fashine bundle of willow branches to help stabilize the stream bank.)

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