By Scott Steen, CEO

Scott SteenIn 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had a big idea. After seeing the devastation caused by a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, Nelson hoped to harness the energy of the 60s student movements in ways that could place environmental protection on the national agenda.

Nelson was convinced that the only thing keeping young people from taking action for the environment was a lack of information — if only they knew the facts, they would act. His solution was to conduct a teach-in at colleges across the country to educate students on the state of the environment. He recruited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey as co-chair, and the first Earth Day was launched.

On April 22, 1970, tens of millions of people rallied across the nation to express their dismay at the rapid degradation of the environment: air pollution, oil spills, toxic waste, pesticides, raw sewage being dumped into waterways and rapidly vanishing wilderness and wildlife. More importantly, the diverse groups of Americans who came together that day began to establish a positive agenda for change — one that said that a healthy planet is a sign of progress, not the enemy of progress.

Earth Day 2010

Earth Day 2010 in Washington, D.C. Credit: American Forests

This first Earth Day brought together Republicans and Democrats, young and old, urban and rural, and rich and poor in a rare moment of common understanding of what was being lost and how quickly we were losing it. The desire to create a safe and healthy environment for our children transcends ideology. Protecting wilderness and wildlife habitat is a part of both preserving our heritage and providing a legacy for future generations. As a result, the movement that grew out of that first Earth Day had a significant impact on the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

Undoubtedly, young people were the driving force in the Earth Day movement. The energy young people can bring to championing conservation and advocating for environmental protection is needed now more than ever. Yet, a number of studies suggest that younger Americans often do not feel a great sense of personal responsibility when it comes to environmental issues.

For American Forests, our mission to protect and restore forests is dependent on enlisting younger generations to carry the work forward. In March, American Forests’ Board of Directors took a step toward engaging a new generation of conservation activists by electing three new board members, each of whom has the ability to help carry our mission and message to a younger audience. The three, who range in age from 32 to 40, are:

Rob Bourdon, a deeply committed conservationist, is the drummer for one of the most successful bands of the last decade: Linkin Park. To give you some idea of the band’s reach, Linkin Park currently has more than 40 million Facebook fans — more than Starbucks, Beyoncé and the Black-Eyed Peas (and more than acts like U2, the Rolling Stones and Sting combined). To give you some idea of their commitment, Linkin Park’s foundation, Music for Relief, has donated more than a $750,000 during the last five years to support the work of American Forests, with Rob taking the lead.

Erin Fuller is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Women in Media (AWM), an organization of more than 10,000 women and men in all aspects of media. AWM is dedicated to harnessing “the promise, passion and power of women in all forms of media to empower career development, engage in thought leadership and drive positive change for the industry and societal progress.” Last year, Erin was instrumental in creating AWM’s partnership with American Forests to offset the environmental impact of the Gracie Awards, an annual awards program that celebrates and honors programming created for, by and about women.

Megan Oxman serves as a program financial manager at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Based in Seattle, the foundation works to ensure all people have access to opportunities to lead healthy, productive lives. Megan has a great interest in the conservation of our natural resources and spends her free time hiking or skiing. While getting her MBA at The Wharton School, she led a group of students to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Aspen

Credit: Mark Byzewski

Each of these new American Forests board members was selected to help us, as Senator Nelson said in 1970, “present the facts clearly and dramatically” to a new generation about the pressing need for forest conservation and environmental stewardship. And because of that, the future is looking a little brighter.