AUGUSTA — This winter, I took my 8-year-old grandson out for an afternoon adventure in the snow-covered woods. We followed deer tracks, talked about the wood duck boxes in the marsh and watched chickadees pecking on trees.

In the quiet of the Maine forest, he learned a little more about these precious creatures and how important it is that we look out for them.

Everyone I have met who lives in Maine appreciates and takes pride in our natural heritage. It is the foundation of our way of life. We want to leave it to our children and grandchildren much as our ancestors left it for us. Earth Day was first established April 22, 1970, and it’s a time we celebrate every year to remember our commitment to take care of the earth that sustains us.

We stand on the shoulders of great environmental leaders in Maine, like Sen. Edmund Muskie – born 100 years ago last month – and Rachel Carson, who built her cottage on the Boothbay Harbor shore in 1953. Because of Muskie, we have the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Because of Carson and her seminal book, “Silent Spring,” we have the modern environmental movement. Maine has continued to foster a host of citizen leaders who stand up to protect our natural heritage. The Natural Resources Council of Maine has been honored to work with many of them. Here are three examples:

Bill Townsend of Canaan has been working to restore the Kennebec River for decades. He was one of the Natural Resources Council’s first board members in 1960 and personally advised Sen. Muskie on why federal action was needed to clean up Maine rivers.

Back then, rivers were routinely dammed, log drives polluted the waters and the Kennebec was known for fish kills, corrosive fumes and a stench so terrible that State House windows were kept closed on hot days.

As a citizen activist, Bill worked with fellow anglers, the Natural Resources Council and others to remove the outdated Edwards Dam, which once blocked valuable sea-run fish, like alewives and salmon, from much of the Kennebec River. Thanks to Maine citizens like Bill, Edwards Dam was removed in 1999 and the Fort Halifax Dam in 2008. The Kennebec River is once again alive with salmon and alewives, as well as eagles, otters and other animals that thrive near rivers.

Alice Bolstridge, now of Presque Isle, was born in Portage Lake.

She is a proud grandmother who has spent countless hours educating her friends and neighbors in Aroostook County about the environmental threats from Irving Corp.’s recent proposal to weaken Maine’s mining rules to go after gold, copper and other minerals at Bald Mountain, not far from her home.

Alice drove a total of 24 hours in the last year to testify at three public hearings in Augusta on this issue. She came to public forums, wrote letters to the editor and helped organize a presentation about mineral mining in her hometown. Alice is a force to be reckoned with and a champion for clean air, clean water and the health of future generations.

And then there’s Rachel Burger, founder of Protect South Portland, the citizen-led group working to protect their community from creating a tar sands export facility.

Rachel has been a lifelong activist. Once she learned that tar sands could threaten her community, she pulled together a living room meeting with her friends and neighbors to create a plan of action. That’s how Protect South Portland was born.

Rachel and hundreds of volunteer citizens have educated their neighbors and worked on a policy to keep tar sands out of South Portland. A committee has now been designated by the City Council to craft an ordinance to meet this objective.

This fall, I was in South Portland helping out one night when a woman gestured around the room to her fellow townspeople and said to me, “I didn’t know these people before I got involved. It’s really made our community stronger.” Rachel and the team of dedicated volunteers can take credit for that.

Over the last 50 years, Maine people, working together, have established a solid foundation of environmental protections to help ensure that our waters, woods and wildlife are here for generations to come. Science, economics, common sense, community and a moral compass guide how we protect our treasured natural heritage.

Earth Day gives us an opportunity to thank the thousands of Maine people who pull together and work with the Natural Resources Council of Maine and others to protect the nature of Maine that we all hold so dear.

— Special to the Press Herald