You should expect to see a ton of stories this week about the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on Thursday. These days Earth Day seems like just a marketing campaign than an actual day for thinking about the environment. The first one, though, was far different. It had to be.
Back then, as we write in "Paving Paradise,": "Two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers, and coastal waters had been declared unsafe for fishing or swimming. Lake Erie was biologically dead. The Detroit River contained six times the recommended healthy limit for mercury. To make the danger as plain (and smelly) as possible, the nation’s waterways were plagued by a record number of fish kills."
The air was no cleaner than the water. In some cities the smog was so thick, men had to change their shirts twice a day.
Fed up with living in a national cesspool, activists organized the first Earth Day demonstration in 1970. Twenty million people—a tenth of the American public—hit the streets to protest. Politicians noticed. What followed through the early 1970s was a virtual eruption of environmental laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and so on.
Those laws were passed by a Congress that was motivated to placate an angry public. They contained strong words like "shall" rather than weasel words like "may." They succeeded in cleaning up the air and water.
But in the 40 years since then, we have seen that the one flaw in passing a strong law is finding someone willing to carry it out.
In our reporting on the Clean Water Act, we found case after case where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bent over backwards to placate developers who wanted to wipe out Florida wetlands -- even though the rules say preserving wetlands is in the public interest.
Similar enforcement problems have afflicted the Endangered Species Act when it comes to animals whose habitat is in the way of developers. That includes manatees and even Florida's state animal, the panther.
A two-day series in the St. Petersburg Times this week (which grew out of our wetlands reporting) documents how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly failed to block development that would wipe out panther habitat.
"It's going to be the best-documented extinction ever, unless they do something," one panther expert said.
Whenever biologists would propose blocking a permit, their bosses would insist on saying yes to everything, even if it meant manipulating the numbers or using flawed science to justify the approval. They feared the political consequences of rejecting any development, particularly losing funding for their agency. They had seen politically influential developers persuade senators and congressmen to lean on the federal agencies to get permits.
They did this even though the panther is one of the most popular animals in the state, the very embodiment of the term "charismatic megafauna."
The irony, of course, is that much of the development wasn't really needed. It was built on speculation. One example from the panther story: the town of Ave Maria, which got permission to alter about 5,000 acres of panther habitat. As of last year the town's projected population of more than 20,000 stood at a mere 500.
The lead-off anecdote in the panther series is about how one of the cats was run over by a deputy in Lehigh Acres, a town that during the real estate boom sizzled with sales and values shot through the newly shingled roof. Once again, this was all based on real estate speculation. Now the New York Times describes Lehigh Acres as "the American dream in high reverse...(where) homes are selling at 80 percent off peak prices." As a result, the paper noted, "Crime is up, school enrollment is down, and one in four residents received food stamps in December."
The panther story has generated intense reader interest. Everyone who calls or e-mails asks what they can do to turn things around and save the environment. Forty years ago, they knew the answer to that -- and it had nothing to do with green shopping tips.