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A conservation movement in the Upper Delaware

On June 23, 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire and burned. Wastes, released into the river by Cleveland’s waterfront and shipping industries, fueled the conflagration.

This was not the first time the Cuyahoga had ignited, nor the worst fire that had taken place on the river, nor was it the only U.S. river with a history of burning. Treated as repositories for industrial and human wastes for decades, burning rivers and harbors were not uncommon during the late 19th and early 20th century in America.

However, this particular river blaze caught the attention of national media at a crucial time: the pivotal 1960s and 1970s, a period of increasing environmental awareness and action on the part of Americans. Another environmentally significant event, preceding the Cuyahoga fire, was the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill off the coast of California in early 1969. These and other high-profile events, coupled with the publication of best-selling books warning of environmental collapse including the seminal “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, and the accompanying public call for action, were largely responsible for movement on the federal level to institute statutes to enhance environmental protection and restoration nationally.

As a result, the 1970s saw the creation of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to name just a few examples. Despite the importance of this federal action, what is often missed, yet of great importance, is what was already occurring on a state and local level.

This is brought to light in an article on the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire by Jonathan Adler, professor and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University. Adler points out that, although there was a long way to go, the cleanup of the Cuyahoga River was already underway and the 1969 fire was an exception to the rule versus what had been the norm in earlier decades. For example, industry and local municipal leaders had already joined forces to form the Cuyahoga River Basin Water Quality Committee in 1963, and in 1968—a year before the 1969 fire—local voters approved a $100 million bond to fund cleanup of the river.

Adler argues that the 1969 fire was not evidence of nationally declining water quality but instead, “early clean-up efforts on the Cuyahoga appear representative of state and local efforts nationwide” and that the nascent “U.S. EPA’s first National Water Quality Inventory, conducted in 1973, found significant improvements in organic waste and bacterial levels in most major waterways over the preceding decade” before enactment of federal pollution control regulations. Adler goes on to point out that many of the federal programs enacted in the 1970s were modeled on preexisting state and local efforts.

Federal regulations and agencies will continue to play an important role in environmental protection in the United States. However, the often unrecognized, yet critical, local aspect of environmental protection speaks loudly to local grassroots efforts, including those underway to protect the natural resources of the Upper Delaware region in the face of ever-increasing growth pressures.

Although within the Upper Delaware region, the emphasis is generally on protection versus restoration that was needed for the Cuyahoga and other degraded waterways in the 1970s, the same spirit of locally driven, community-based initiative applies.

Effective environmental protection consists of a combination of education, individual responsibility, citizen involvement (including participation in the voting process and volunteering to support local citizen action), coalition building, community planning and the development and institution of effective regulatory frameworks.

You can find examples of all these aspects of environmental protection on both sides of the river, on both a regional and municipal level. We are especially fortunate to have Pennsylvania recognize the Upper Delaware and the Pocono Forest and Waters as focus areas in the newly created Community Landscape Initiative. This initiative, as well as others, is necessary to protect the natural resources—air, water, soil, forests, fish and wildlife—that support not only human health but also the economic sector, a high quality of life and recreational opportunities.

America has a rich environmental history. The 1960s and 1970s were particularly important as Americans demonstrated their increasing willingness to support environmental protection as science made increasingly clear the connections between people, our actions and the natural world that sustains us. This was a remarkable period not only for our country’s development, but for humankind as a whole. It is something we can carry forward in our personal lives, in our communities and in town meeting halls as we collectively meet the environmental challenges in the Upper Delaware River Valley region.

Guest editorial by John José, who a naturalist who lives in Beach Lake, PA

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