Earth Day Turns 50

Denis Hayes: Known for leading the first Earth Day and heading the Bullitt Foundation

Denis Hayes is best known for organizing the first Earth Day, which is now recognized in 192 countries and is considered the world’s largest observed secular holiday. Denis has headed Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation since 1992. Photo courtesy the Bullitt Foundation.

By Adam Conley

In honor of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Earth Day on April 22, this article has been updated from the original, published in the April 2014 edition of Northwest Prime Time.

It’s not often you meet someone who says they face each day excited about the work that lies before them. So it is with Denis Hayes, prominent environmental activist, national coordinator of the first Earth Day and president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation since 1992.

“I have the gigantic good fortune to get up in the morning and work on something I care about,” proclaims Denis with infectious enthusiasm.

To engage Denis Hayes in conversation is to enter into his world for a moment and become inspired by the many things that clearly light his fire. This articulate, intelligent, thoughtful man speaks with passion and conviction that both compels and energizes.

The Hayes family moved from Espinola, Ontario to Camas, Washington in 1950. It was here, growing up a stone’s throw from the banks of the Columbia River, that Denis began to cultivate a love for nature and the outdoors.

Denis’ father made his living at the local paper mill as was the case with most men of that time and place. Denis recalls his father held hardworking, conservative values. He also possessed a certain stoic pride in his role as the operator of paper machine No. 10, which was responsible for producing paper that wrapped frozen food products.

To Denis’ father and the rest of the town, the sulfur dioxide and other chemical pollutants thrown off by the paper mill were tolerated as “the smell of prosperity.” As Denis recalls, nobody at the time realized the inordinate amount of rust and corrosion destroying their automobiles was the same stuff they were breathing. In addition to premature deaths associated with the pollution, most working men were deaf by the age of 50 or 55 due to the thunderous noise from the equipment they worked with at the mill.

“For the first seventeen years of my life,” recalls Denis, “I had a nagging sore throat.” However, this did not stop him from hopping on his bike to explore the surrounding Columbia River Basin or hiking through the nearby forests. Denis remembers exploring green verdant forests, only to be suddenly disoriented by stumbling across a clear-cut wasteland, or “moonscape” in his parlance, that had been sacrificed to feed the mill. “[The mill was] a great digesting machine, continually devouring the forests we’d go hiking in,” he explains.

Denis remembers a happy childhood growing up in Camas. The 40 mile round-trip bicycle ride to the Beacon Rock area of the Columbia River was, and continues to be, one of the most beautiful natural spots in the world to Denis.

One of many pivotal moments in his life took place in 1961 as a junior at Camas High School (now named for him). Denis enrolled in an ecology seminar where he read Eugene Odum’s classic text Fundamentals of Ecology. This planted the seed that shaped Denis’ values and continues to make a global impact on the relationship humans have with this blue and green globe we call home.