History of Earth Day

Department of Environmental Quality

Gila River Indian Community


Each year, Earth Day -- April 22 -- marks the anniversary of what many consider the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.


At the time, Americans were pumping leaded gas into large automobiles with V8 engines. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press, and air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity.


Although mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental concerns, the stage had been set for change.

The idea for Earth Day came to founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda.


As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, harmful pesticides, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife, suddenly realized they shared common values.


Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment with support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban and rural Americans. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.


In 1990, Earth Day went global. It mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries, and lifted environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide, and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In 1995, it prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the highest honor given to civilians in the United States -- for his role as Earth Day founder.


The fight for a clean environment continues in a climate of increasing urgency as the ravages of climate change become more evident every day.


For a number of years, the Community’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has celebrated Earth Day to raise public awareness about environmental issues locally, nationally and globally. We invite you to be a part of Earth Day and learn what the various DEQ programs are doing to protect the Community’s resources. Please help us achieve more victories so we can build a clean, healthy and safe environment for generations to come!