We are approaching another anniversary of “Earth Day” here in the United States. Pausing on or near April 22 of each year to reflect on the relationships that people have with where they live, and to conduct activities and hold events to better that relationship has been happening in this country since 1970. One of the originators of that first Earth Day forty-four years ago was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson.
It is said that Senator Nelson helped create that first Earth Day in reaction to a massive oil spill that ravaged the Pacific Coast near Santa Barbara, California in 1969. With an emerging consciousness by the public about pollution dangers, Nelson sought to push environmental issues onto the national political agenda. He persuaded Congressman Pete McCloskey to serve as his co-chair for the Earth Day event. McCloskey, a conservative Republican, served as a political balance with the liberal Democrat Nelson for leadership of the young movement.
At that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, a national “teach-in” on the environment was held on college and university campuses across the country. The messages that were heard that day resonated with Americans everywhere who were worried about things like air and water pollution. With the strong media blitz that accompanied the environmental teach-in, a push was made politically to enact legislation that would address some of the environmental concerns and problems. By the end of that year, Congress had begun the process to pass landmark legislation to create the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pass the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
At the same time as the national environmental movement was blooming, the dam project on the Kickapoo River at La Farge was moving toward the construction stage. Land for the dam project, which was to be constructed just upriver and north of the village, was being purchased by the Corps of Engineers’ land procurement officials based out of Rock Island, Illinois. By the spring of 1970, the Corps had purchased several family farms along the Kickapoo for the proposed dam project. Families were moving off from those farms and the buildings on the properties were put up for sale - to be moved or demolished by the buyer. Corps' engineers dug sample wells and took soil and rock samples on Norris Ridge, where the dam was to be constructed.
At that particular time in history, few people would realize that a convergence was about to happen with the emerging national environmental movement and the Corps of Engineers’ project on the Kickapoo River. Gaylord Nelson had been a strong proponent of the flood control project on the Kickapoo, first when he was governor of Wisconsin and then as a senator in Washington D.C. In the spring of 1970 as those first properties in the La Farge area were being purchased for the dam project, Nelson and the other elected representatives of western Wisconsin were solidly behind the endeavor. By the following spring, Senator Nelson and many other state politicians would be singing an entirely different tune.
What changed the lyrics in this little harmonic ditty formed by the new national environmental movement and the dam project at La Farge occurred later in that year of 1970. For it was the elections that were held in November of that year that would forever change the direction of the dam project on the Kickapoo River.
When Patrick Lucey was elected governor of Wisconsin in the general election in November 1970, he immediately began to assemble an administration team and cabinet for his state executive department. One of the goals of Governor-elect Lucey and his team was to stop the dam project at La Farge. Although Lucey had not campaigned against the dam project at La Farge prior to the election (Indeed, the project had been a non-issue in the run-up to the election with neither Lucey or Jack Olson, the Republican candidate, showing anything but support for completion of the project.), there were ominous signs that opposition to the project, especially from the emerging environmental community, was gathering.
During the summer and autumn of 1970, many articles about the Kickapoo Valley project had started to appear in the Madison and Milwaukee daily newspapers. Many of the articles were based on canoe trips taken by the newspaper writers on that section of the Kickapoo that would eventually be covered with the waters of the lake behind the dam to be built at La Farge. (At that time, canoeing on the Kickapoo was just beginning to take off as a recreational activity in the area. Few local Kickapoogians were interested in canoeing on the snag and snarl infested Kickapoo at the time, but those people from away found the recreational activity alluring.) A variety of the writers from the state’s daily newspapers, including well known outdoors writers Steve Hopkins of the Wisconsin State Journal and Bill Stokes of the Milwaukee Sentinel, penned feature articles on the Kickapoo River and the dam project.
Beginning in late 1970, increasingly the tone of the articles in the state papers began to slant against the dam project at La Farge. Sporting such headlines as “Mother Nature May Be Evicted” and “Virginal Valley Today, But Tomorrow?” the articles on the Kickapoo Valley dam project focused more and more on the loss of the natural scenic beauty and the “wildness” of the river. The focus of the media coverage began to shift away from the beneficial flood control, recreational and economic aspects of the dam project and toward the protection of the natural environment of the Kickapoo Valley. This concern with the environment being shown by many who opposed the La Farge project was emanating from that rebirth of environmental concerns in America that was introduced on that first Earth Day earlier in April.
On Saturday, April 19th, “Kickapoo Earth Day 2014” will be held at the Visitor Center of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. A wide variety of events and activities are planned throughout the day and evening to celebrate Earth Day. Some of the events held at the Reserve will feature nationally known speakers on many different topics of environmental interest. How ironic that this Earth Day event will be hosted on land that was originally purchased for the La Farge Dam & Lake Project. Dis-harmonic convergence perhaps?