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Opinion: An Earth Day 2011 Perspective

"Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Forty-one years ago today we celebrated the very first Earth Day, along with the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). These agencies, built with bipartisan cooperation during Republican administrations in both Trenton and Washington, reflected society’s awakening sense that the future of our planet was entirely dependent upon immediate and continued responsible stewardship of our air, water and land.

Since 1970, we have made remarkable progress on many fronts in addressing the unfortunate environmental legacies from the times when we were all but ignorant of the impact that human activities have on the natural world. Our air is measurably cleaner -- though not yet in compliance with federal ambient air quality standards. Our rivers and lakes no longer catch fire from being used as industrial sewers, but many of them are still not swimmable or fishable, much less drinkable. Our oceans are no longer the preferred option for the disposal of sewage and medical waste, though many marine areas remain too unhealthy to harvest the shellfish found there. And Barnegat Bay and many of our estuarine areas are still dying a slow death.

Perhaps most impressively, we have permanently preserved more than 25 percent of the state's land in parks, forests, wildlife management areas and working farms, yet we still do not have enough open space for recreation, watershed protection, critical habitat for rare species. Nor do we have enough preserved farmland to ensure that farming remains a viable industry here in the Garden State.

This progress has been so substantial, in fact, that a recent study commissioned by the DEP shows that the value of New Jersey’s accumulated "natural capital -- the economic value of the services provided by natural areas and healthy ecosystems -- was estimated at some $19 billion per year. This may well be the first time that the natural capital of the Garden State was in the black since the Industrial Revolution.

This progress has clearly resulted from a series of landmark laws that created numerous innovative programs to address the problems of the past. These laws and programs have made New Jersey an acknowledged leader among states in enlightened environmental policies. But the job is not yet done, despite some forty years of progress. Now is not the time to turn the clock back to the failed practices of the past. Going back now dooms our children to pay a higher price in the future to make up for our backsliding.

Yet elected officials in both parties, led by Gov. Chris Christie, seem determined to have us believe that we cannot afford to stay the course. They insist that environmental policies must be rolled back to accommodate short-term economic growth. This has resulted in some truly strange and particularly ill-advised initiatives: to prohibit state standards from exceeding bare federal minimums; to privatize the DEP regulatory functions; to empower the DEP to waive "burdensome" regulatory requirements; and to have New Jersey withdraw from a collaborative regional effort with nine other northeastern states to minimize the impact of climate change.

It seems to me that the proponents of these dramatic rollbacks in both parties would do well to learn from history how and why we got where we are today. First and foremost, we are no longer ignorant of the impact of our actions on the environment, so that is no longer an acceptable excuse for poor stewardship. Second, living cheek to jowl with almost nine million other folks in the most densely populated state in the nation, which will see complete "build-out" sometime in the next generation, long before any other state, just means that we cannot hide our environmental problems, and that the public will continue to demand that we address them.

We should remember, for example, that we first enacted our Air Pollution Control Act in the mid-1950's, and later the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act in the 1980's, in response to deadly episodes of industrial emissions in neighboring Pennsylvania and Bhopal, India, respectively. Our Spill Compensation and Control Act was passed in 1976 after the massive Santa Barbara oil spill and proposed drilling off the coast of New Jersey taught us that our beaches and shore tourism industry were vulnerable to oil spills. And the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act was a response to the fact that we had too many abandoned contaminated industrial sites, and more sites on the national Superfund list than any other state.

Do we really want to roll back this progress just as these landmark programs are making a real difference?

Winston Churchill said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Today's elected officials in both parties who are determined to roll back environmental regulations would do well to heed this lesson before the pendulum of public opinion swings back with a vengeance once our problems worsen, as they inevitably will if we backtrack now.

It is time for Republicans to remember that they are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Kean and Maureen Ogden, and to demonstrate that truly responsible conservatives have learned the lesson that we need a healthy environment to ensure a prosperous economy. It also is time for Democrats to remember that they are the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Jim Florio and John McKeon, and that many environmental problems disproportionately affect the folks they claim to represent, especially blue collar workers, the working poor and people living in urban areas.
But most of all, it is time for each one of us -- Democrats and Republicans, farmers and factory workers, suburbanites and city dwellers -- to accept responsibility for our environment by staying the course, so we can bequeath to our children a world that is healthier and more sustainable than the one we inherited from our parents, rather than to waste the progress we have made and the natural capital we have banked since 1970. And that is the real message of Earth Day 2011.

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