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Earth Day Anniversary 🌎

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

Since 2020 is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, it might be interesting to remember the very first one in Boulder back in 1970, and how it got started. I helped with the original effort here, so I will try to remember some of what actually happened to bring it about.

In 1970, I was involved with two organizations. One was the nonprofit Thorne Ecological Institute, which today is called Thorne Nature Experience! We “connect youth to nature” through hands-on, place-based, environmental education experiences. The other organization was Thorne Films, Inc., an educational film company, of which I was president.

Tom Mayberry, a young man who had recently started to work for Thorne Films, had been trying to locate documentary film footage that might be available for use by our company. He learned that one possible source was the Phoebe Hurst Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco. They had filmed many Native American Indian craft techniques. So he travelled out to check their film archives.

While he was there, Tom heard about a future conference that was to be held at the end of September 1969 in San Francisco, put on by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). It was to be called The First International Conference on Man and the Environment.

At that time, Dr. Bettie Willard was the president of Thorne Ecological Institute. Tom told her and me about the Conference. We decided that Sandy Cooper, who was Bettie’s administrative assistant, and Tom, should attend it.

During the conference there was repeated mention of a future event called Earth Day: an Environmental Teach-In, which was to be held nationally on April 22, 1970. Denis Hayes and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who were in attendance at the Conference, were the organizers, along with Congressman Pete McCloskey.

When the meetings of the day were over, Tom met Hayes and Nelson having a drink in the bar. He learned more about Earth Day and asked them who was in charge of their Colorado program. They looked at each other, then pointed at Tom and said, “You are!” So that’s how Thorne Ecological Institute became the organizer of Boulder’s first Earth Day.

We contacted the University of Denver, who later helped organize the Denver Earth Day program. Tom placed advertisements in both the Colorado Daily and the Boulder Camera for a Boulder organizational meeting in Chemistry 140 at the University of Colorado in October 1969. About 200 people, mostly students, attended. Several members of the Boulder Quaker Friends Meeting were also in attendance.

After several more meetings, two Environmental Centers were set up, one at the University and one for downtown Boulder. The former grew into what is today the University of Colorado’s Environmental Center. They are also celebrating their 50th Anniversary! One of the Boulder Quaker Friends Meeting members, Ellie Krause (who also went by Sunni Eckert), was their first student director who they now refer to as “student founder.”

When Boulder ’s first Earth Day finally arrived, there were many activities. I remember that I led nature walks along Boulder Creek. The Public Service Company of Colorado (now Xcel Energy) donated space for a downtown headquarters. Several environmental workshops were held there as well as at the University in Hale Science and at the UMC (University Memorial Center). We held a big celebration for the Earth in Central Park with balloons, music, and speakers. My nephew, Dave Hard, came wearing a gas mask to emphasize air pollution problems and autographed balloons for the kids.

It was an exciting day for Boulder. Many more Earth Days that followed indeed contributed to our environmental awareness as a community that led in so many ways for the sake of the Earth!

Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check or e-mail or call (303) 499-3647.

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