The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day Is a Time for Reflection and Action

Even in the face of enormous challenges, we can do great things to secure a better future for birds and people.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day was never supposed to look like this.

There should have been crowds of people from across the political spectrum — birders, hikers, hunters — celebrating their common concern for nature and wildlife. We should have been carrying the extraordinary momentum of the past year forward to secure bipartisan progress for the environment in our city halls, statehouses, and in the U.S. Capitol.

Instead, we’re experiencing something totally unexpected: a shared appreciation for the simple act of just being outside—especially if you have school-aged children at home. Audubon is getting regular calls from reporters asking, “are there more birds now that there are fewer people out—or have they always been there?” (Answer: mostly the latter, maybe a little bit of the former).

What we’re seeing is the purest expression of what it means to love birds and nature. In fact, as this crisis forces us all to evaluate the things that matter most to us, I believe we can hang on to this lesson and emerge more unified to take action to protect our natural world.

Our national parks, and in many places our playgrounds and trails, are closed to us. In their absence, many people are discovering a deeper appreciation for the most easily accessible ambassador for the outdoors—birds.  

We were all looking forward to our usual spring migration traditions, holding festivals to mark the arrival of long-awaited birds like the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and delighting in the waves of warblers up and down the Atlantic Flyway. But Audubon takes seriously our responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19, and we cancelled all of our in-person events through June 30. So much for the annual birding festivals.

Instead, we’ve found new ways to bring people and birds together. Our new weekly LIVE show,  I Saw a Bird celebrates the wonders of spring migration and brings together a wide array of bird lovers including Saturday Night Live’s  Melissa Villaseñor and Emmy-nominated actress and National Audubon Society Board Member,  Lili Taylor. And we have live programing coming from Audubon sites across the country—check out this calendar and tune in.

People are hungry for nature in ways that are both heartbreaking and beautiful. So it’s even more unconscionable that the administration has ignored the bipartisan legacy that created the epic Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Instead, the administration is using this moment of crisis to double-down on its attacks on our air, wildlife, and health. The Interior Department has refused to recognize the extraordinary pressures of this crisis, holding to unrealistic deadlines and rushed public comment periods on a new rule that guts protections in the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The world is awash in the cheapest oil in decades, yet the administration is paving the way for oil and gas companies to drill on the protected public lands we were supposed to protect for our children and their children. We’re also seeing rollbacks of standards on deadly mercury pollution, a known cause of birth defects, in opposition to the industries that have already adapted to common sense laws. Birds have always been the proverbial canaries in the coal mine—bird survival is human survival—and we ignore that at our own peril.

That’s why on this Earth Day we’re redoubling our efforts to work on behalf of birds and the places they need with as much determination as ever. While we all cope and grieve and reckon with COVID-19, we will not be deterred from partnering with outdoor lovers from across the political spectrum in holding the administration accountable.

While there are immediate needs related to the response to COVID-19, we must also invest in long-term conservation efforts to rebuild a better, healthier America and restore nature and our economy. Until the past few years, birds and nature have been bipartisan issues; the longing we all feel to be on a trail, in a park, or beside a stream should remind us of that.   

As the 1918 flu pandemic swept through America, the (mostly) women who founded the National Audubon Society won its cornerstone victory—the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a bipartisan bedrock conservation law. That achievement, long forgotten by most, reminds us that even in the face of enormous challenges we can do great things with collective action built on shared values.

This Earth Day is now a time for BOTH reflection and action. Our appreciation of birds lifts our spirits in these difficult times, inspires us to reconnect with nature, and reaffirms our resolve to build a big, bipartisan tent to fight for birds and the environment. Audubon’s network reaches 10 million people a month and our partners range from Ducks Unlimited to Natural Resources Defense Council to The Nature Conservancy. We are more determined than ever to make it clear that the world we leave for generations to come depends on the actions we take now.