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Viewpoint: Environmental stewardship extends beyond awareness

Just a few weeks ago, I had the honor to attend and speak at the 50th anniversary of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The riverway was created when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 into law. At the signing ceremony, Johnson said: "In the past 50 years, we have learned — all too slowly, I think — to prize and to protect God's precious gifts. Because we have, our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them."

The early 1900s were marked as an instrumental period of development in our nation's history, but it came at a cost. Chemical dumping and pollution threatened public health and infrastructure. One of America's most polluted rivers was the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. The river caught fire 13 times since 1868, resulting in $1.3 million in damages in 1952 and a loss of five lives in 1912. In 1948, stagnant air trapped pollutants from a local zinc plant over the town of Donora, Pa. The hovering "wall of smog" lingered for days, and in that time, killed 20 people and sickened almost half of the town's 14,000 residents. Researchers later found that the pollutants killed nearly all vegetation in the half-mile radius surrounding the plant. That is the context in which Johnson spoke and the reality our parents and grandparents lived through.

As we take a look back at Earth Day, let us remember that our environment is something to protect. It is an investment that we, and the generations that come after us, will reap the benefits of. Here in western Wisconsin and the 10th Senate District, we benefit from a strong tourism economy. In 2016, tourism spending brought in $470.1 million in total business sales and employed 4,621 residents in Burnett, Dunn, Polk, Pierce, and St. Croix counties. Tourism is driven by visitors who have come to enjoy our rivers, state parks and trails.

Protecting our environment also preserves our sporting and outdoors heritage. Nobody wants to fish in a polluted lake. As a former member of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association, I do not know many people who would enjoy hunting in neglected lands. By engaging in environmental stewardship and investing in our natural resources, we can preserve habitats and ensure that our sporting heritage extends to future generations.

While we have moved beyond burning rivers and lethal smog, the threat to our environment remains. For instance, Foxconn. The $4.5 billion deal exempts the foreign company from many environmental protections, including an environmental impact study. The waiver of the study means residents will not know the impacts Foxconn has on their property and nearby waterways, wetlands and air. Our commitment to our environment cannot be just one day of awareness. It is on us to actively engage in environmental stewardship.