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The First Earth Day: A Personal Remembrance

  • 4/22/2020 2:17:00 PM
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By Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Section

The first Earth Day, which took place on April 22, 1970--50 years ago--sparked the creation of environmental policies and programs that helped clean up parts of the environment not only across the U.S., but also here in Iowa. It also sparked an awareness and appreciation for nature in Iowans young and old.

I was eight years old on the first Earth Day, which was founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. That movement led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, followed by the passage of the Clean Air Act that year and the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Steve Hopkins with his grandmother, Bernice Hopkins Although I can thank many people for teaching me about nature and the environment, among the first were my grandparents, Claude and Bernice Hopkins.

As a boy, I loved to visit Grandpa and Grandma Hopkins at their pasture-based cattle farm in northwest Missouri, only a three-hour drive from our home in Atlantic, Iowa. Grandpa loved working with and observing cattle, which he had done his entire life, and he was in fact the 1935 national collegiate dairy judging champion while competing with the Iowa State College Dairy Judging Team.

Grandma loved animals, too, but also so much more. She not only helped Grandpa with livestock chores, she also kept a large garden of healthy vegetables and beautiful flowers, and she cooked delicious meals every day. She had studied home economics and horticulture at Iowa State, and she put her knowledge to practical use on the farm.

What I remember most about her, though, was how she loved birds. She would listen carefully to bird calls on the farm, and she had an old 78 record of bird calls that she listened to so she could learn bird calls better. She also could whistle the call of bobwhites so accurately that they would respond by calling back to her. And, in describing the musical call of meadowlarks, which sang from the tops of the many fence posts on their farm, she would say joyfully, “It sounds like they’re singing ‘Gee whiz, my feet are cold!’”

Grandma Hopkins would never have called herself an environmentalist. Yet, she helped instill in me at an early age an awareness and appreciation for nature that has been a part of me all of my life, even long after her passing from this Earth.

Years later, in 1987, I was completing my master’s degree in Land Resources at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, named in honor of the founder of Earth Day. That’s also the year that Section 319 of the Clean Water Act was passed, creating a program that provides funding and technical assistance to address nonpoint source pollution in the U.S. to help clean up rivers, lakes, and streams. Fast forward to today, where I coordinate Iowa’s efforts with the Section 319 program.

Since 1990, the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement program has worked with the Section 319 program to fund more than 600 local, regional and statewide clean water projects (mostly watershed projects) totaling more than $100 million. Currently, the DNR provides $1.8 million annually to locally-led watershed projects to restore lakes, streams, and river segments in Iowa.

On a recent visit to one of those watershed projects here in Iowa, I heard the familiar and welcoming call of a meadowlark, singing “Gee whiz, my feet are cold!” I thank Grandma for helping me hear that call, and for helping me find my calling.

           

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