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1970 “Era of Environmentalism” Begins

Earth Day (Timeline image)

Courtesy ISEE

The emerging power of the national environmental movement was demonstrated with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. An important aspect of NEPA is the requirement that federal agencies must describe the impacts a development they sponsor or build will have on people and on natural resources, such as air, water, land, and wildlife, and also must describe how to minimize those impacts. The Oahe project was one of the first projects to be subjected to such a disclosure document.

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Preparing such a document –called an environmental impact statement- necessitates many months of work including the use of many experts. Public hearings must be held to take testimony on a draft impact statement before a final impact statement is completed. This marked the first time that developers were required to consider environmental impacts alongside economic impacts. Developers immediately recognized the opportunities such a document offered to those concerned about a certain project.  A primary opportunity is the option to sue a federal agency over the adequacy of an impact statement. Within several years following passage of NEPA other important federal environmental legislation was passed, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and both added protections to public health and the environment, and offered citizens, including a growing number of environmentalists, additional opportunities to question and contest water development projects. 

Sign of the Times

South Dakota’s first and most contentious environmental “issue” and controversy was the Oahe irrigation project. As the national environmental movement gained power and acceptance through the early 1970s, local groups –including opponents of the Oahe irrigation project in South Dakota- proclaimed that environmental values and issues needed to be included in the discussion of economic development projects.  This billboard reflects that sentiment.  It was erected near Beadle County’s Lake Byron in 1973 by a group of local farmers who expressed concerns about the irrigation project. They called themselves the Lake Byron Farmers. That group quickly expanded and evolved into an larger, better-organized group that would be named United Family Farmers.

NEPA’s historic significance

Passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) changed the course of history in the United States. Many aspects of American society were impacted. NEPA has been described as an “environmental Magna Carta.”  Pictured is Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson (D-Washington). He is considered to be the chief author and leading proponent of NEPA. Jackson began his quest to pass NEPA in 1968. Congress passed the law in late 1969, and President Richard Nixon signed it into law on January 1, 1970.

  • NEPA is recognized as the first major federal environmental law passed in the United States.
  • NEPA requires federal agencies to gather and present to the public information about the environmental consequences and impacts of proposed activities.
  • Some experts describe NEPA as the most important law passed in the 20th century. The philosphy behind NEPA -conserving and protecting natural resources and public health and well being-  has spread to many countries across the globe.