Party Smashers: Washington Was Supposed to Celebrate Rachel Carson's 100th Birthday This Year. Then the GOP Got the Invite

By Larson, Christina | The Washington Monthly, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Party Smashers: Washington Was Supposed to Celebrate Rachel Carson's 100th Birthday This Year. Then the GOP Got the Invite


Larson, Christina, The Washington Monthly


One sultry June day in 2006, Valerie Fellows, press officer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, took an unexpected phone call from the manager of the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge in Maine. "I don't know if you care," said the voice on the other end of the line, "but next May 27th is the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson's birth." No kidding? Fellows most certainly did care. She had grown up adoring Rachel Carson, who is known as the godmother of American environmentalism. What's more, Carson happened to have been employed by the predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Fisheries, where she worked as a biologist in the 1930s and '40s. One of Carson's roles had been to edit all agency publications, making the science comprehensible to the layman, a skill she later put to memorable use. Carson wrote several books, but the most famous, her last, was Silent Spring, published in 1962. A lyrical and devastating look at indiscriminate pesticide use, Silent Spring is often credited with spurring on the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and, with it, the modern environmental movement.

Fellows, who saw "a huge opportunity" for good publicity, spent the next year rummaging through neglected agency archives, trekking to Carson's former homes, dusting off historical artifacts, and scheduling "centennial activities" to take place from May through October this year. After all, she notes, "how often does your most famous employee turn 100?"

At first, Washington seemed happy to join in the festivities. The National Archives held an exhibit of Carson memorabilia, and several environmental groups cosponsored a commemorative reception on Capitol Hill. In Congress, members vied to outdo each other with odes to Carson's legacy. Representative Tom Udall penned a resolution to honor "the patron saint of the modern environmental movement." Pennsylvania representatives of both parties introduced a bill to rename Rachel Carson's hometown post office in Springdale in her honor. Even Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett, who often spars with conservationists over public-lands policies, extolled Carson's work at the Capitol Hill reception.

But the Capitol Dome weathervane swiveled quickly. Democrats may be in charge of Congress now, but Valerie Fellows was about to see how furious a twister conservative Washington can still unleash when it's feeling provoked. And, for the right, Rachel Carson is decidedly provocative. The allegations of her critics can be summed up simply: in recent years, many scientists have concluded that DDT, used sparingly, could help eradicate malaria in Africa by targeting the mosquitoes that spread it. But the pesticide remains controversial, largely because of Carson's work publicizing the damage wrought by DDT in the 1950s and '60s, when it was used indiscriminately to dust fields in the United States. Since malaria kills millions, goes the argument, Carson is responsible for millions of deaths.

The chorus quickly sounded off. "A Centennial We Could Do Without," complained the National Review. "Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science," objected John Tierney's New York Times column. "Rachel Carson's Deadly Legacy," lamented the title of a piece in the Washington Times.

Carson's defenders protested the onslaught, which they rightly viewed as absurd, since neither Rachel Carson nor the EPA ever had the authority to ban DDT use in Africa. (Indeed, Carson had never lobbied to ban DDT in America, but simply focused attention on its haphazard use.) But the detractors were already on a roll. Republicans on Capitol Hill eagerly took their turn. …

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