Pennsylvania’s Conservation Activism Began Long Before The First Earth Day On April 22, 1970

This week we celebrate the 49th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, but we in Pennsylvania need to remember environmental activism has a long and rich history here that begins way before that.

In 1681 William Penn officially proclaimed Pennsylvania’s first conservation law by requiring that for every 5 acres of land cleared one acre of trees must be preserved.

Fortunately, Penn was not around to see how much of Pennsylvania’s rich, lush forests were clear cut for wood products, farming and to make charcoal for the iron industry in the decades after. 

Few people realize that by 1900, 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s forests were gone and left behind were barren landscapes where rains washed millions of tons of soil into our streams and rivers.  The forests we see today are what grew in its place.

In 1857 another great wave of resource development began with the drilling of the first oil well in Titusville which put oil wells every hundred feet across the landscape in many areas bringing with it a new form of pollution to rivers and streams.

Coal mining followed tearing up hundreds of thousands of acres of land with no regard to environmental consequences.  The legacy of that mining we still have with us today in the form of over 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, burning underground mine fires and mine subsidence that swallows buildings and occasionally people.

Pennsylvania’s first environmentalists were hunters and anglers concerned about how hundreds of years of these environmental insults on Pennsylvania’s environment affected wildlife and the enjoyment of the outdoors.

They were the ones who started programs to restore Pennsylvania’s forests, clean up our rivers and streams and bring back our wildlife using the best science and whatever resources they could get; all with a strong belief in community action and education.

As a result, they became not only state leaders, but provided national leadership as well.

Many of the first women providing leadership in these efforts anywhere in the country were Pennsylvanians, showing concern for the environment and repairing the damage of the past.

Click Here to watch a documentary by WITF and the PA Conservation Heritage Project about these early efforts and the men and women who provided this leadership.

In more recent times, Pennsylvania provided environmental leadership with--

-- An Environmental Rights Amendment to the state’s constitution guaranteeing the right of all citizens to clean air and pure water;

-- First comprehensive law to regulate surface coal mining that was used as a model for the national law;

-- Development of an award-winning State Parks system and sustainably managed State Forest;

-- A brownfields redevelopment program used as a national and international model;

-- A Good Samaritan law to encourage the cleanup of abandoned mines, plug oil and gas well used as a national model

-- The Growing Greener Watershed Restoration Program used as a national model

-- The first statewide curbside recycling law

-- The first state law to deal with the health threats posed by radon

-- A comprehensive state Air Pollution Control Act; and

-- State electricity generation deregulation; and Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards to encourage renewable energy.

The list goes on, but will it continue?

Use this Earth Day to reflect on Pennsylvania’s outstanding leadership on conservation and environmental issues and find out what role you can play in continuing our story.

The pages of the PA Environment Digest are filled with examples of everyday Pennsylvanians making a difference for our environment in every walk of life.   [Search Awards & Recognition under Subjects]

This week, in fact, we recognize the winners of the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence Awards and the Central PA Women in Conservation Awards as great examples to follow.

And you can join them.


-- Click Here to watch documentaries about the people, events and movements that shaped Pennsylvania’s conservation heritage by WITF and the PA Conservation Heritage Project.

-- Click Here for stories of Pennsylvania’s conservation leaders who made an impact in their communities, the state and the entire country by the PA Conservation Heritage Project.

-- Click Here for a Timeline of Pennsylvania’s Environmental History by the PA Conservation Heritage Project.

-- Click Here for an overview of Pennsylvanians and the environment from the PA Historical and Museum Commission.

(Photo: What does she see in Pennsylvania’s environmental future?)

Related Stories:

PaEN: Winners Of Governor's Award For Environmental Excellence Celebrated

PennFuture To Honor 8 Winners Of Central PA Women In Conservation Awards April 25

[Posted: April 20, 2019]


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