By: Keith Reopelle

MADISON — It is an understatement to say that Wisconsin has a strong environmental legacy. With leaders like John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson all having called Wisconsin home, our state can take great pride in its historical wealth of environmental leaders. Unfortunately, that strong environmental legacy is threatened today, and there is little doubt that these environmental leaders of Wisconsin’s past would be deeply disappointed by the recent attacks on Wisconsin’s environment.

With Earth Day having become a global event, it is easy to forget that the holiday’s roots lie right here in Wisconsin. In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson organized the first Earth Day. Originally thought of as a college teach-in, the day quickly became a day for all Americans to demonstrate their support for environmental protection.

Over 20 million Americans showed their support for a healthy environment by participating in that first Earth Day celebration. The energy and momentum from this day helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, the landmark Clean Air and Water acts, and the Endangered Species Act.

Over the next four decades, Wisconsin established itself as an environmental leader by being among the first states to pass a ban on DDT, strong groundwater protections, legislation to curb acid rain, a comprehensive recycling law, and some of the strongest laws in the nation to reduce toxic mercury pollution in our lakes.

More recently, Wisconsin helped lead the effort to pass the Great Lakes Compact, a historic agreement between eight states and two Canadian provinces that protects our beautiful and economically important Great Lakes.

Unfortunately, as we celebrate the 41st anniversary of Earth Day, Wisconsin leaders seem poised to move our state in the wrong direction on environmental policy and are threatening to diminish Wisconsin’s reputation as a leader on environmental protection.

Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to delay vital rules that reduce algae-causing phosphorus in our lakes, rivers and streams. Wisconsin’s waters are vitally important to our economy and our way of life, and to delay protecting them puts this important resource at risk.

The governor and some legislative leaders are also making it more difficult to construct wind farms in our state. These actions have already killed two proposed wind projects that were set to create hundreds of jobs and move our state closer to energy independence. Unless actions are taken to simplify Wisconsin’s regulatory environment, there is little doubt that more wind farm projects – and the jobs associated with them – will be lost.

Perhaps most shockingly, the governor is proposing to roll back the state’s wildly successful recycling program. Originally passed in 1990, the Wisconsin Recycling Law has helped keep the equivalent of five landfills worth of waste out of Wisconsin landfills to date. Recycling is supported by 90 percent of Wisconsin residents, and unless legislators act to restore recycling funding in the budget, our state risks moving nearly two decades backward on environmental policy.

Our leaders often defend these proposed environmental rollbacks by creating a false choice between environmental protection and job creation. To the contrary, protecting our state’s natural resources and investing in clean energy is paramount to our economic health as a state.

In the words of Earth Day’s founder Gaylord Nelson, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity… That’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.”

This Earth Day, we should all encourage our leaders to work toward a healthier environment and celebrate Wisconsin’s strong environmental legacy, instead of diminishing it. By doing so we can protect our state’s beautiful environment for our children and grandchildren, while building a strong and vibrant economy.

Keith Reopelle is the senior policy director at Clean Wisconsin.