Locals celebrate Earth Day’s 50th with virtual story swap

Gary Noren, who hasn’t missed an Earth Day celebration since the event’s inception, picks up trash along the St. Croix River. - Photo provided
NORTHWEST WISCONSIN - Gary Noren of Chisago City, Minnesota, remembers the first Earth Day clearly. It was 1970 and he was graduating from Concordia College.
“It was life-changing,” he said of the nationwide celebration that gave voice to an emerging environmental consciousness. “It was an awareness of something I’ve felt since I was a kid, but never knew there was an international movement.”
He hasn’t missed an Earth Day since and has dedicated his life to environmental issues and organizations, including the St. Croix River Association and Friends of Wild River State Park.
“It’s one of the main reasons I exist,” he said of his commitment to caring for the planet.
April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a story with origins closer to home than some might know.
The Father of Earth Day
Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Father of Earth Day, was born and raised in Clear Lake, within the St. Croix River watershed. As a boy, he fished, paddled and hiked the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers.
But it wasn’t until 1969, after seeing the effects of an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, that Senator Nelson was inspired to organize a “national teach-in” on the environment.
Nelson would later be awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts in bringing Earth Day to fruition. Presenting the medal in 1995, President William Clinton said, “As father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event: The Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Earth Day is now celebrated by more than a billion people around the globe.
50-year anniversary coincides with pandemic
To honor Earth Day’s half-century anniversary, North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area planned a year of celebrations around the St. Croix Watershed. “We’re not an environmental organization,” NWW Board Chair Marty Harding noted, “but we do promote the work St. Croix watershed conservation organizations are doing. The primary reason we’re promoting the 50th Anniversary is the historical context of Senator Gaylord Nelson and that he was born here. … This is the culture in which we’re raised, a culture of conservation.”
With continued concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and public health recommendations limiting public gatherings, Earth Day in-person events including a Nibi Water Walk and river-themed concerts are being rescheduled for fall. Visit or follow the organization’s Facebook page for updates.
One program that hasn’t required any change: swapping Earth Day stories online.
Tell your Earth Day story
“I’m not the only one who has an Earth Day story,” said Noren, “People are surprisingly eager to share their Earth Day stories.”
At Earth Day 2019 in Clear Lake, Noren brought a big sheet of paper and asked people to share memories of Earth Day.
A middle-school-age boy told Noren that his elementary school teacher had given him a tree to plant in honor of Earth Day. He liked doing it so much that he asked his father for more trees, which they planted together.
“Now I see them outside my window,” he told Noren, “they’re almost as big as I am and they make me happy every day.”
“People of all ages shared their stories with us,” Noren said. “Some were very heartwarming.”
Area residents are invited to share their Earth Day stories at Stories will be posted on the North Woods and Waters website, and everyone who submits a story will be entered in a drawing to win nature-themed prizes for a variety of ages.
Of the online event, Noren said, “It’s a virtual way to celebrate before we can do it in person. This is a full year of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.”

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