Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Fire That Ignited Environmentalism!

Heading west on a cross-country trip a few months ago, Mugs (my English Bulldog) and I took our first drive on historic turnpikes beginning with a slice up through western Pennsylvania and then across Ohio and Indiana.  These roads seemed refreshingly free of the blight of outdoor billboards.

Even though our trip was routed to include National Parks such as Theodore Roosevelt, Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, for some reason it hadn’t dawned on me until I was there on the Ohio Turnpike  that I would first cross through the tiny but sixth most visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) which embraces 22 spectacular miles of that famous river once traversed by Johnny Appleseed.

Crossing the Cuyahoga River that day, as it winds between Akron and Cleveland on its way to emptying into Lake Erie, brought back memories of when it caught on fire further downstream in 1969, the ninth time it had done in the previous hundred years dating back to 1868.

The news media latched onto the 1969 event as though it were the first occurrence, just as the news media mistakenly identified a Civil Rights event nine years earlier in Greensboro NC as the first sit-in when many had been held years earlier, such as the many held in Durham where I have lived since 1989.

However, while far from the first, the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River as it passed through Cleveland, a city known for its parks and open spaces, served to reignite nation-wide concern about protecting the environment and spawned guardians such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a host of other environmental protections defamed today by hundreds of attempts to roll them back by Republican-led votes in Congress and state legislatures across the country.

Efforts to establish the Cuyahoga Valley National Park date back to 1910. While it gained some Federal protection just five years after the infamous pollution-fueled fire just downstream, CVNP didn’t become a complete reality until 2000.  However, plans were intensified by the shame of the river being branded in the news and by late-night-talk-show comics by references to the 1969 fire in the river as it passed through Cleveland.

Belying the fact that a Republican President spawned the conservation movement more than a hundred years ago and another the EPA only 17 months after that emblematic fire on the Cuyahoga, ultra-conservative members of that party have long-loathed parks and open spaces as well as environmental protection and dismissed them as “nature socialism.”

In his now-prescient 2007 book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill,) investigative journalist David Cay Johnson notes that advisors to 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater lobbied for elimination of all national parks.

He also notes that in 1981, the libertarian-ultra-conservative think-tank Cato Institute argued for eliminating all public parks and in 2007 an institute named for the mentor to Republican-Libertarian cult-economist F.A. Hayek denounced parks.

To me, as a moderate-Independent, Republican opposition to conservation, public parkland and clean air and water has been as consistent as it is incomprehensible.  Based on the current votes in Congress and in our state legislature, it is more than fringe support in that party.

Fortunately, many Republicans eventually come to their senses as Goldwater did when in 1996 when, at age 89, he joined the newly-formed Republicans for Environmental Protection.  In the meantime, we just need to protect the environment from those still on the other side of the issue.

Republicans today, all but purged of anything except conservative and ultra-conservative viewpoints, need to heed that organization’s slogan “Conservation is Conservative® !”

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