Governor Davis is joined by young volunteers at the first Green Up Day in 1970.

Green Up Vermont Stewardship with Tradition

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Thursday May 05, 2016

Green Up Day is an active symbol of Vermont’s environmental ethic and has been a strong and continuing influence in generating support for the environmental movement throughout the state. Green Up Day’s innovative idea originated in 1969 and a year later, the first official Green Up Day was launched April 18, 1970. This Saturday, May 7, will be Vermont’s 46th annual Green Up Day. Its mission is to promote the stewardship of Vermont’s natural landscape and waterways and the livability of its communities by involving people in Green Up Day, itself, and raising public awareness about the benefits of a litter-free environment. Now held the first Saturday of every May, Green Up Day is an annual tradition that began with one man’s idea.

A Green Idea for a Green State

In March of 1969, Robert S. Babcock, Jr., a South Burlington resident and reporter for the Burlington Free Press, arrived at the Vermont State House to meet with then Governor Deane C. Davis. Babcock shared his concern for the devastating effects of spring runoff and the unsightly litter he viewed traveling to Montpelier and proposed the inauguration of a statewide effort to clean up the highways of Vermont. His concept included having the support of the Vermont highway department as well as large groups of volunteer citizens who would remove the litter on the roads of Vermont. Intrigued by the idea, Governor Davis assigned South Burlington resident Theodore “Ted” Riehle, Jr. to work with Babcock to coordinate the first Green Up Day.

A South Burlington Legacy

A war veteran, businessman, sailor, and politician, Riehle had a passion for environmental issues long before he was assigned a project called Green Up. Most notably, he is considered the father of Vermont’s billboard law. Riehle sponsored and championed the controversial, but ultimately successful passage in 1968 of the landmark legislation to ban billboards on Vermont roadsides. Often referred to as the “Riehle Bill,” the legislation, first of its kind nationwide, impacts Vermont to this day, maintaining scenic vistas while preserving the state’s natural beauty.

Having moved to South Burlington in 1961, when he served as the commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Reserve Center in Burlington, Riehle was first elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1965. He left the legislature when he was appointed by Governor Davis to become Vermont’s first planning director, where he served as a senior advisor. The Governor then assigned Riehle to work with Babcock to coordinate the first Green Up Day.

Although Riehle passed away at the end of 2007, his legacy of service to the state of Vermont continues to this day. His son, “Ted” Riehle, III, currently serves as a member of the South Burlington Planning Commission. His daughter-in-law, Helen Riehle, is South Burlington City Council Chair and was recently appointed by Governor Shumlin to replace Senator Diane Snelling, returning her to the State House, where she had previously served as a senator for two decades.

The First Green Up Day

To ensure the success of the first Green Up Day, it was decided that the event would take place after a year of planning by Babcock and Riehle. Meanwhile, news of the inaugural project spread and enthusiasm grew. Support came from all areas of the state including community groups, students, teachers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H Clubs, and many others. Green Up Day litterbags were handed out and literature promoting the day was distributed.

When the first Green Up Day finally arrived on April 18, 1970, over 70,000 Vermonters were out on the roads picking up trash. The Vermont Interstate Highway was closed from 9 a.m. to 12 noon with state and local police force present at every exit. Some travelers were reportedly upset by the closure, but were immediately cooperative upon explanation of the project. The Governor flew in a helicopter over the state highways and town roads during the day, touching down wherever groups of workers were spotted, to talk and lend support.

The result of the first Green Up Day went far beyond expectations. 4,000 truckloads, comprising 20,000 cubic yards of trash were removed from the Interstate and other state roads (2,400 miles) and another 20,000 cubic yards were removed from town roads (8,300 miles). Then Senator George Aiken said in 1971, “They collected virtually every glass bottle, every metal can, every scrap of paper which had been cast onto the roadside; by Saturday evening, Vermont was undoubtedly the cleanest in the nation.”

According to Governor Davis, Green Up Day is believed to be the largest statewide, voluntary, unified citizens’ effort ever organized in Vermont. He further stated the impacts as enhancing the pride of Vermonters in their state and setting the stage for continuing cleanup programs that have resulted in Vermont highways being known as the cleanest in the United States. In addition, Governor Davis credited Green Up Day for helping to pass the bottle bill and a long list of other environmental legislation.

In 1979, according to Green Up, “Governor Snelling declared that Green Up was so successful it should ‘go out on its own.’ Thus, caring folks created a 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit organization – Vermont Green Up, Inc. Today the small non-profit organization continues, ‘doing business’ as Green Up Vermont.” The state of Vermont continues to add support to the effort with an annual appropriation, through a grant from the Agency of Natural Resources, as well as providing office space in a state building. In addition, towns support the Green Up effort by contributing each year. Green Up Vermont also raises funds through private donations and corporate sponsors supporting the annual efforts throughout the state to keep Vermont clean.

Today, Green Up Day thrives and is an active symbol of our state’s commitment to preserving our environment. Community members can join the South Burlington Land Trust and their neighbors on Saturday, May 7 at the City Hall headquarters, for this year’s Green Up Day and become part of Vermont’s long tradition of service and stewardship.

Join the Tradition of Stewardship
46th Annual Green Up Day
Saturday, May 7, 8 a.m. - 2 p.m.
South Burlington City Hall
575 Dorset Street

For more information, contact
South Burlington Land Trust
President Sarah Dopp at
or 802-985-3581

SOURCE: Elizabeth Milizia, Contributor