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MY COUNTRY, 'TIS OF THEE
Bil Gilbert
December 20, 1976
The future of mankind depends largely upon how well we protect the environment—the air, land, water and all that lives in or upon them. In the United States we have often misused these precious resources. Concerned citizens—once few in number, but now multitudes—have made environmentalism the No. 1 American social enterprise. This special article relates the story of their considerable undertaking
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December 20, 1976

My Country, 'tis Of Thee

The future of mankind depends largely upon how well we protect the environment—the air, land, water and all that lives in or upon them. In the United States we have often misused these precious resources. Concerned citizens—once few in number, but now multitudes—have made environmentalism the No. 1 American social enterprise. This special article relates the story of their considerable undertaking

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The legislative and legal battles over Alaskan oil ended in the fall of 1973 at about the same time the great gasoline shortage—the so-called energy crisis—began. Though the two events were coincidental, efforts were made by opponents of the environmental movement to show that they were connected. Environmentalists had opposed the development of Alaska oil. Now there was an oil shortage. Therefore, environmentalists and their restrictive laws and regulations were responsible for the shortages. There was not much logic behind the attack. If anything, the shortages proved a basic environmental contention that the reckless use of natural resources was at the root of all sorts of problems. However, what with cold houses, closing factories and lines at gas pumps, it was a panicky time. Threats to do something about environmentalists and predictions that the oil shortages had dealt a death blow to the environmental movement were in vogue.

"During December around Washington it was like being pinned down in a foxhole," recalls the Sierra Club's Brock Evans. "Everybody was taking potshots at us. I remember one committee chairman yelling at our president, 'You got us into this with your lawsuits. Now what is your answer?' It was a farcical situation but potentially very dangerous. There were ah sorts of spur-of-the-moment suggestions to repeal NEPA and generally dismantle environmental laws and agencies.

"We kept a low profile and asked our political friends to stay cool until the dust settled a bit. At the same time, we got together with some other organizations and began calling local volunteers and groups around the country, asking them to get off letters and wires to Congress. This braked some of the wilder schemes. Then Congress went home for Christmas and the members began talking to their constituents. Energy was the big issue, but it turned out that people were madder at the oil companies than they were at environmentalists. A national poll showed that 60% of the public thought the shortages were the fault of oil companies and government; only 2% blamed environmentalists.

"When Congress reconvened, the mood was different. The only ones still talking about an environmental backlash were those who had always been against us and apparently hoped that if they talked backlash enough it might happen. It worked the other way. The credibility of oil and development people in general dropped, and ours rose. I feel that so far as the environmental movement is concerned, the so-called energy crisis was anything but a disaster. To the contrary, it started a new round of thinking and talking about fundamental environmental problems connected with exploitation, high technology and continual development."

Indisputably, environmentalism weathered the oil-shortage crisis and is now more a going concern than before. Almost daily we are confronted with news stories demonstrating how our environmental activities have proliferated. Some have had to do with the Alaska pipeline. By the fall of 1975 more than half of the 800-mile-long pipeline had been laid. In the spring of this year it developed that approximately 4,000 of the welds linking together the pieces of pipe would have to be reexamined and/or rewelded, because the jointures were not up to the standards specified in the stipulations under which permission to build the pipeline was granted. Inasmuch as each section of pipe is 80 feet long and 48 inches in diameter, this became a large and expensive undertaking. A special panel was appointed to investigate pipeline delays and charges of environmental malfeasance.

These additional happenings, disclosures and controversies, among hundreds of others, were reported as matters of recent public interest:

Arizona
The Havasupai Indian tribe, numbering 435 individuals, has long contended that through rights of historical occupancy they have title to some 185,000 acres adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. The Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth and other groups opposed the Havasupai claims, contending that the acreage should be added to the park, that if given back to the Indians serious environmental damage would result. Finally Congress settled the dispute in favor of the Havasupai.

Maine
As a result of a 1972 oil spill from a tanker in Casco Bay and four years of litigation, the state received $750,000 for environmental damages from the tanker's owner. Texaco, whose oil was being transported, paid $100,000 in environmental reparations to 33 Casco Bay clam diggers.

Maryland
Construction work at the two-million-kilowatt Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Conowingo was halted on Oct. 4 when monitoring devices showed that radiation levels had risen to three times above normal. However, it was determined that the excessive radiation was not caused by an accident but by heavy rainfall carrying fallout from a recent Chinese nuclear test.

Michigan
Upper Peninsula mining interests backed by a number of Democratic legislators tried to emasculate the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. MEPA, passed in 1972 and regarded as a model state statute, was saved largely through the efforts of a Republican governor, the United Auto Workers and a coalition of private state environmental organizations.

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