Why Earth Day, Kunsan environmental programs are more relevant than ever

  • Published
  • By Maj. Justin Delorit
  • 8th Civil Engineer Squadron

A few years ago, I took a trip to Maine and camped at Acadia National and Baxter State Parks with my wife. From the tops of Cadillac and Katahdin I recall being exhausted, but also overcome by the vast and rugged beauty of Maine’s coast and deep interior forestlands. As an American I am proud that we have chosen to set aside and maintain tracts of land to enjoy based on their existence value, even if other uses would be more lucrative. This is an important concept that recognizes the fact that development objectives are often in conflict with environmental goals. In other words, a forest pays landowners less than a coffee shop or a steel mill, and without protection, the forest often loses in a free market.

As such, the environment needs advocates and Earth Day. It also needs real protections, because the Lorax is not real.

While there are now measures (read: legislation) in place to ensure proposed developments minimize negative environmental impacts, they have only been in place for fifty years, and environmental quality demands that people remain committed to advocacy through events like Earth Day and personal environmental stewardship.

But protecting the environment seems like a no-brainer, so why worry?

On a peaceful Sunday in June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in the industrial district of Cleveland, Ohio. While normally fire and water are seen as opposing forces in nature, years of illicit wastewater discharge, emanating from the steel and paper mills that powered Cleveland’s economy, had been the fuel necessary to defy nature.

However, this was not the first time the river had been set ablaze—in fact it was the thirteenth fire on the Cuyahoga in one hundred years. The pollution-fed fires were accepted as obligatory coproducts of industrialization—recall what I wrote earlier about the environment and development often being in conflict. But the country changed in the 1960s, socially and politically. Born of Rachel Carson’s 1962 release of Silent Spring, the young but powerful flames of environmental activism had been fanned. People demanded sweeping environmental legislation.

Fast-forward almost a year, sometime in the afternoon of April 22, 1970. President and Mrs. Nixon planted a pine tree sapling in the South Lawn of the White House in celebration of the first Earth Day, which was in part established to highlight the need for environmental protection. Though the tree planting was as symbolic as Earth Day, President Nixon went on to sign the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which set the United States, and ultimately the world, on a new course. At nine pages, NEPA is among the shortest pieces of federal legislation. However, it is so foundational to establishing processes by which physical development must account for and mitigate negative environmental impacts, that it has been used as a framework by over one hundred other countries.

So, if NEPA and other legislation are ultimately the firepower the environment needed, and environmental quality has improved since 1970 (it has, and thankfully the Cuyahoga has been fire-free), what is the value of Earth Day in modern times and what is the Wolf Pack at Kunsan Air Base doing to protect the environment?

Earth Day is an opportunity to reflect on the beauty that surrounds us, consider how we interact with the environment, and think about what we can or should do contribute to preserving and restoring it. A wonderful aspect of the environment is that we can make individual contributions without significant investments of time or money. In fact, the Wolf Pack makes money from your commitment to environmental stewardship.

Consider the next time you visit the food court, taking a few extra seconds to segregate recyclable items from trash, or picking up and properly disposing of a misplaced can or bottle. While the physical improvement of the base is certainly incentive enough, through the 8th Fighter Wing’s Qualified Recycling Program, we receive reimbursements for recycled items. The revenue generated helps sustain our refuse collection programs and funds both environmental and morale, welfare and readiness (MWR) purchases. This year, the 8th Force Support Squadron will be purchasing a food truck paid for entirely from the Wolf Pack’s commitment to recycling. These funds have accrued over the last decade and I am thankful to the Airmen who paid it forward.

This recycling program is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Air Force’s and Kunsan’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Each unit has at least one Unit Environmental Coordinator, who acts on behalf of the commander to ensure his or her processes and work centers are in compliance with Air Force regulations that are derived from NEPA. These coordinators work directly with Environmental Management section within the Civil Engineer Squadron, which is the wing’s focal point of environmental compliance and management. For the Unit Environmental Coordinators and Environmental Managers, you could say that every day is Earth Day.

I urge you to take a moment think about the ways your life interacts with the environment. Being mindful of your influences will increase your ability to recognize how you can contribute to improving environmental quality, and likely without making drastic changes in your life. Even symbolic acts, like the planting of a tree at the White House, or picking up one piece of trash on Kunsan Air Base, is meeting the intent of Earth Day and helping the Air Force meet its environmental obligations. And every day you do the right thing for the planet, you are celebrating Earth Day and being a great Airman.

Those two objectives are never in conflict.

Editor’s note: Major Justin Delorit is the deputy commander of the 8th Civil Engineer Squadron at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, and manages a 324-member team of military, American and Korean civilian engineers in executing a $910 million design and construction program and U.S. Pacific Air Forces’ largest airfield construction program, at $160 million.

He was recently awarded the 2019 NSPE Federal Engineer of the Year award, distinguishing him as the top engineer in the entire U.S. federal government.