Earth Day was first observed on April 22, 1970, when an estimated 20 million people nationwide attended the inaugural events at tens of thousands of sites including elementary and secondary schools, universities, and community sites across the United States. Senator Gaylord Nelson promoted Earth Day, calling upon students to fight for environmental causes and oppose environmental degradation with the same energy that they displayed in opposing the Vietnam War. By the twentieth anniversary of the first event, more than 200 million people in 141 countries had participated in Earth Day celebrations. The celebrations continue to grow.
In July 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in response to the growing public demand for cleaner water, air, and land—its mission to protect the environment and public health. Earth Day also was the precursor of the largest grassroots environmental movement in U.S. history and the impetus for national legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the EPA announced new requirements for improving air quality in national parks and wilderness areas and establishing regulations requiring more than 90 percent cleaner heavy-duty highway diesel engines and fuel.
An American conservation movement existed long before the first Earth Day. See the special presentation Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement in the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, to learn about earlier milestones in U.S. efforts to preserve and protect the Earth. These efforts include the designation of some of America’s most majestic national parks such as Mt. Rainier, Yosemite, Acadia, and the Grand Canyon in addition to the creation of the National Park Service.
John Burroughs, John Muir, and Luis Agassiz Fuertes (at the outset of his career as the nation’s most notable ornithological painter since Audubon) were among the scientists, naturalists, and artists who produced an album documenting the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition with hand-written notes, typed documents, photographs, drawings, and maps. As such, they can be considered political and cultural progenitors of Earth Day. See also the Albert K. Fisher Papers—Fisher was a member of the Harriman Expedition. The Harriman Alaska Expedition 1899 photographic album, compiled by Fisher, is included in Meeting of Frontiers, an international collaboration devoted to the theme of the exploration and settlement of the American West, the parallel exploration and settlement of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the meeting of the Russian-American frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest..
- Explore the Earth Day 2020 Web Archive to see how communities celebrated the 50th anniversary of this event. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic it became largely a digital celebration.
- The collection The Evolution of the Early Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, demonstrates that works of art are integral to the legacy of the early conservation movement. Search this collection using the terms Thomas Moran or Currier & Ives for examples of such art.
- Mapping the National Parks documents the history, cultural aspects, and geological formations of areas that eventually became National Parks. The collection consists of approximately 200 maps dating from the 17th century to the present. Browse the Subject Index for a variety of maps; each map is also a primary source that tells the story of the region as well as of the park through the history of its mapping.
- See these Today in History pages to learn more about events in U.S. conservation history, and individuals whose intellectual or artistic legacy influenced the movement:
- To learn more about major environmental legislation currently before the U.S. Congress, search on environmental protection, conservation, pollution, or climate change in Congress.gov. It is also possible to search for a bill by its name or bill number. For example, select all legislation (instead of current legislation) and search for Gaylord Nelson Apostle Islands Stewardship Act to find a bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to study whether the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore should be protected as a wilderness area. Bill numbers start over with each Congress, so to search for a bill by its number you need to first select its Congress. For this same bill, select the 105th Congress and search for S. 134. (Search in the Detroit Publishing Company collection on the term Apostle Islands to see images of the area discussed in the legislation.)
- The Library’s Science Reference Services Section developed Science Tracer Bullets, which are research guides on science and technology topics. Search on the keyword environment to locate, for example, a Tracer Bullet on Biodiversity, or, for the budding environmental scientist, Environmental Science Projects. Similarly, the Division has compiled Selected Internet Resources—see their page on the environment.
- See the Earth Decade Reading List and Earth Day: Selected Resources guide available from the Library’s Science Reference Services.
- Visit the EPA’s Earth Day Website. Read articles there about the first Earth Day, including:
- Earth Day ’70: What It Meant by Earth Day founder, Gaylord Nelson, originally published in EPA Journal, April 1980.
- Earth Day Recollections: What It Was Like When The Movement Took Off by Nixon administration official, John C. Whitaker, originally published in EPA Journal, July/August 1988.
- The Spirit of the First Earth Day by Jack Lewis, former assistant editor of the EPA Journal, originally published in EPA Journal, January/February 1990.
- Visit a National Park! The National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. Learn about the Every Kid Outdoors program which offers free access to hundreds of federal parks, lands, and waters for an entire year to fourth grade students, their families, and their educators.
- Visit the Biodiversity Heritage Library External, an online collaborative of hundreds of institutions making biodiversity literature openly available online.
- Read front page coverage about the first Earth Day from the New York Times External.