Forty-two years ago what started as a simple idea quickly grew into a national event.
Twenty million Americans marked that first Earth Day, setting aside their political differences and coming together in massive coast-to-coast rallies to lobby for a healthy, sustainable environment.
This year we also celebrate another important landmark in the history of natural resource protection that has been a precursor to modern environmental movement: the 75th anniversary of the Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Act (WSRA). The WSRA directs excise taxes from the sale of firearms, ammunition, and fishing equipment to be used exclusively to improve fish and wildlife populations, support hunter education, conserve critical habitat, and provide public access to the outdoors.
To date, this federal program has pumped more than $13 billion into conservation efforts across the country, more than any other single conservation effort in American history. Vermont continues to be a beneficiary of this historic program, leveraging millions of federal dollars each year from the sale of Vermont hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses.
Earth Day helped continue this visionary trend towards natural resource conservation, leading to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
“It was a gamble,” founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, recalled, “but it worked.”
As I travel across the state, I meet Vermonters who share the same concerns of those first Earth Day celebrants and the forward thinking members of Congress who passed the WSRA in 1937.
Beneficiaries of these legislative landmarks, Vermont now has —along with our state parks and forests — 87 wildlife management areas covering 131,000 acres that is home to sustainable populations of game and nongame species alike.
We have protected habitat for numerous endangered and threatened species, from the common loon to the spiny soft-shelled turtle, and have restored populations of moose, black bear, and the eastern wild turkey. More than 10 million visitors come to Vermont every year to fish in our streams, hike and hunt in our woods, and share in the beauty of our varied landscape.
I encourage you to celebrate Earth Day and the 75th anniversary of the WSRA by taking the measure of the landscape around you. Hike down a quiet trail in your community or cast a line for trout in a clear, flowing stream. Grab your binoculars and watch the returning herons fly overhead, or get out in the woods during the May turkey hunting season. If you’re up for the challenge, hike up one of the Green Mountains and admire the winding spine of hills below you. You’ll quickly remember why we share a distinctive sense of place.
But also pause to leave this place better than you found it. Help pick up debris left scattered by the roadways by incautious travelers, or volunteer to plant trees along a river with your local watershed group. This state is your inheritance and its future is your legacy.
Wherever you wander, know that our collective efforts over the last few decades, while a good beginning, are also just a start. Earth Day and the 75th anniversary of the WSRA serve as reminders that Vermont is ours to celebrate and to steward. But our natural heritage is worth it.
Patrick Berry is commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife.
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