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Climate Change

An Interview with Unsung Environmental Hero Pete McCloskey

by Rocky Barker

Congressman McCloskey recalls the first time Senator Gaylord Nelson asked him to participate in the environmental teach-in that inspired a generation.

Former Republican Congressman Paul “Pete” McCloskey is one of the unsung heroes of the modern environmental movement.

He is an author of countless environmental legislation passed in the 1970s including the Endangered Species Act of 1973. But his partnership with Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the man who envisioned the nationwide demonstration we celebrate as Earth Day, made the first one a successful bipartisan launch on April 22, 1970.

On that day, 20 million Americans in 2,000 communities and 10,000 schools planted trees, cleaned up parks, buried cars in mock graves, marched, listened to speeches and protested how humans were messing up the planet. It was the largest demonstration in the history of the nation – far larger for instance, than the Women’s March in 2017.

Sen. Nelson came up with the idea for a “teach-in” on the environment after 3 million gallons of oil spilled on the beaches of Santa Barbara and killed 10,000 seabirds in January 1969. Nelson was a longtime conservationist in Wisconsin, the home state of both John Muir and Aldo Leopold. “The Genius of Earth Day,” wrote Environmental Historian Adam Rome, was that Nelson chose not to micromanage the teach-in and allowed it to grow from the grassroots.

The cover of The Genius of Earth Day by Adam Rome; Outrider Foundation

The cover of The Genius of Earth Day by Adam Rome;

Outrider Foundation

He reached out first to McCloskey, a Republican, and a former environmental attorney from California. When asked, McCloskey was pleased to bring a bipartisan voice to the national demonstration 50 years ago next April that started the modern environmental movement.

More important political leaders from both parties, including President Richard Nixon, recognized that environmental issues were important to Americans weary of polluted air over cities and rivers so toxic people couldn’t swim.  A green generation, educated and energized by the hundreds of demonstrations nationwide, carried those lessons forward.  President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency soon after. 

President Nixon signs the act establishing the EPA

President Richard Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment; 

National Archives

“Nelson’s willingness to let others take ownership of the teach-in made Earth Day even more powerful,” said Rome, author of the book The Genius of Earth Day.

Then Congress passed the 28 major initiatives that became the foundation of the nation’s environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and amendments strengthening the National Environmental Policy Act.  McCloskey, 92, was with Nelson, a key Congressman in the passage of those fundamental environmental laws.

A Marine second lieutenant who led six bayonet charges in Korea and came home with two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. His leadership on environmental issues continued after the first Earth Day, and he remains a fighter for the cause, hoping to make the 50th anniversary bring out a new generation to fight climate change.

Earth Day 1970 on 5th Avenue; Getty Images

Earth Day 1970 on 5th Avenue;

Getty Images 

Senator Nelson’s daughter Tia, a lifelong advocate for climate action and Outrider's Climate Director, recently traveled to the home of McCloskey and his wife Helen in Rumsey, California to interview the Congressman about the first Earth Day.

Tia Nelson: Tell me about your memories in terms of meeting Gaylord and how you recall early conversations with my father.

Pete McCloskey: Well, It wasn’t much of a conversation.

I was in the House I was elected in 1967. It's 1969 so I’m in my second term.  I’m hated essentially by the Republican Party because I oppose the Vietnam War. I know Nixon is a crook. I’d been an environmental lawyer and I’d seen California threatened as Gaylord had seen Wisconsin threatened by pollution. So I got a call.

This is Gaylord Nelson the senator from Wisconsin and I’m sponsoring a teach-in on the environment April 22nd and I’d like it to be both bicameral and bipartisan and I wonder if you would willing to be my Republican co-chair. As far as I knew there weren’t any environmentalists. I didn’t know anybody in the Senate, I didn’t like George Murphy, anyway. So, I said of course. And then we met.

He was just a humble, quiet gentleman and we had the same views on everything. Like the war. We had time to sit down at the Conservation Foundation. So the three of us, Sid (Howe, President of the Conservation Foundation) was going try to raise the money. He raised $20,000. Gaylord put in $12,000 of his own money from speeches and he got a couple of thousand dollars from a couple of labor leaders.

He wanted it to be kids. He wanted the kids to run it. He wanted to excite the kids like the teach-ins on the war had been done. His great concept was getting the energy of youth to work on good causes. It wasn’t just the environment. He was interested in, ghettos, poverty, social justice, civil rights. So, we got to know each other pretty well. We both agreed on the same things. He’d been in the infantry and I’d been in the infantry, the Marines. I came to love him. He was as much a mentor to me and an inspiration as anyone in Congress. He was just a leader he was a great human being.

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TN: Yeah, He sure was.

PM: He loved people he loved the land. He didn’t want to see anybody killed. I can’t think of anybody I had more respect for. Your father and I weren’t just friends, we were soulmates.

TN: It’s inspiring to hear your words describing that time and that critical moment in American History. And the environmental decade is launched, more environmental laws are passed, and you were the author of some really important ones, the Endangered Species Act…

PM: Listen, I played a small role compared to your Dad. His idea to revolutionize and bring pressure on politicians by young people and to use the energy of young people who, you know, have always been the leaders, civil rights, human rights, it's always been young people who took on the establishment. It wouldn’t have happened without him. If he hadn’t had that idea. If he hadn’t raised $100,000 to fund a bunch of kids working in Washington and then what they did afterward is precisely what he wanted.

They turned out 7 members of the House of Representatives. When Congress convened in January, two-thirds of the House and Senate both Republicans and Democrats had become environmentalists. He revolutionized this country. He, one man, like Martin Luther King. I put him in the same class as Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. He revolutionized the whole environment.

Rocky Barker is an environmental writer from Boise Idaho who retired from daily newspaper journalism in 2018 after 43 years. He is the author of Saving All the Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act and Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.

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