Ask a Naturalist: Earth Day turns 50!

This article was written by Eva Mitchell, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park

Every April, people around the world take time to celebrate the Earth and take action for environmental protection in their communities and beyond. The tradition of Earth Day began in the United States in 1970 as a response to the increasing demand for environmental protection and has grown ever since! As we celebrate 50 years of Earth Day this month, we look back at its origins in order to carry its legacy forward.

In the years leading to the first Earth Day, there was a growing environmental awareness and increasing concern for heavy pollution that was leading to a vast array of ecological problems. Among many public calls to action, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring’ is a famous example of new revelations that raised national concern about the harm caused by widespread use of pesticides. While the nation seemed poised for a significant shift, the inspiration for Earth Day largely came from an oil spill that took place off the coast of Santa Barbara in January of 1969. More than three million gallons of oil spilled and significantly harmed the local marine ecosystem, including causing the deaths of thousands of seabirds, seals, sea lions and fish. In the following months, many activists responded and demanded change in the form of regulation, education and public action.

A year later, national leaders had organized a holiday to land on April 22, 1970: the first official Earth Day. Gaylord Nelson, the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin widely called the founder of Earth Day, believed energy from the student anti-war movement and the growing public awareness of environmental issues could bring environmental protection to a national level. That year, the first celebrations took place on thousands of school campuses and in communities across the country as more than 20 million Americans took to peaceful demonstrations and educational sit-ins on behalf of the environment.

Earth Day has grown significantly since its 1970 origins, and for the first time in 1990, Earth Day leaders coordinated 200 million participants around the world with events in 141 countries. Since then, each year there have been thousands of events coordinated worldwide through the entire month of April (sometimes called ‘Earth Month’) to gather for educational events, various rallies regarding environmental policies, and community actions like neighborhood cleanups. This year, the Earth Day Network has designated the theme Climate Action, saying that “Earth Day 2020 will be far more than a day. It must be an historic moment when citizens of the world rise up in a united call for the creativity, innovation, ambition and bravery that we need to meet our climate crisis and seize the enormous opportunities of a zero-carbon future” (

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board started Earth Day Cleanups in 1995 to draw attention to the water quality improvement needs of Minneapolis’ lakes and the effects that individual actions have on urban water quality. The cleanups have since been an annual event with the additional goals of providing a meaningful volunteer experience and environmental education to Minneapolis residents and park users.

In following guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board made the decision to cancel all programming and events beginning March 17. This includes the annual Minneapolis Earth Day Event that was scheduled for Saturday, April 18 from 9:30 a.m. to noon. The annual Earth Day event will not be rescheduled for a later date due to the constantly changing landscape regarding COVID-19. However, we encourage you to do your part for Earth Day by collecting trash in your neighborhood and posting to our Earth Day Facebook page with what you collected with the hashtag #MplsDIYEarthDay. Let’s all do something good for the planet and encourage our community members to do the same with a do it yourself Earth Day!

The MPRB’s priority is the health and safety of our park visitors and our employees. Even with program cancelations and building closures, our parks and trails are still available for your use. Going outside and taking a walk, riding a bike or just sitting and breathing fresh air can be helpful during stressful times. If you encounter others using the same amenities, please be mindful to maintain a safe, appropriate distance.

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