The lessons learned from Alaska’s first Earth Day | Community Perspectives

Organizers of the Environmental Teach-In for the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970, 52 years ago — considered Alaska pivotal in offering a respite from consternation over the war in Viet Nam. We hoped to focus national attention on Alaska’s environmental concerns.

• The oil industry’s “discovery well” on the state of Alaska land near Prudhoe Bay of the largest petroleum resource in the country had been announced early in 1968.

• In January and February 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill stoked public outcry over petroleum spill into natural environments.

• By August 1969 the 20th annual Alaska Science Conference attracted record numbers of presentations and attendees, inspired by questions of how petroleum development and environmental protection could coexist.

• In September 1969, the state of Alaska held its lease sale for drilling rights to lands near the discovery well that brought $900 million into the state’s treasury.

Local organizers invited university faculty, political figures, legal scholars and prominent conservationists to discuss issues the week of April 22. We promoted the events with published schedules and a pamphlet that set a tone of earnest discussions of decisions yet to be made regarding Alaska’s huge petroleum potential in relation to environmental concerns.

While planning, we’d had to shrug off accusations by local critics like Joe Vogler and Larry Carpenter that Earth Day was a front for subversives and Communist sympathizers as April 22, 1970, marked the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin.

Former News-Miner reporter Mary Beth Smetzer wrote in her 1990 retrospective on Fairbanks’ 1970 Earth Day that one advance scout from Washington DC had been told that student riots were planned, so he was tasked to “ferret out the instigators.” In her Constitution Hall press office, Smetzer’s then-infant daughter charmed supposedly riotous student malcontents. The scout’s fears of riots soon evaporated.

Earth Day 1970 in Alaska broadened awareness of unsettled issues and concerns for the long-term health of the young state’s various habitats and environments. Then-Secretary of Interior Walter J. Hickel addressed an 800-person audience in the Patty Gymnasium and announced his intention to issue the federal right-of-way permit for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Audience reaction was polite, if not enthusiastic.

Only 12 days later, some 400 students at Kent State University in Ohio participated in demonstrations to protest the Nixon administration’s widening the Viet Nam conflict to permit bombing targets in bordering Cambodia. Members of the Ohio National Guard were summoned by the mayor of Kent. After a number of shots were fired, four students had been killed, another nine wounded.

Secretary Hickel proved to be more attentive to environmental concerns than Earth Day organizers had expected. Later in 1970, his memo to President Nixon that recommended heeding college students’ views on a number of issues was leaked to the press. Hickel was dismissed from the Nixon cabinet just before Thanksgiving that year.

My rearview mirror on Earth Day 1970 suggests that it set precedents for a generation of civil, even cordial, discourse and problem-solving among divergent stakeholders in Alaska — commodities in short supply today.

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