The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 40 years old this week. It may have been born later, or it may not have been born at all, if not for a dedicated U.S. lawmaker and a burning river.

Gaylord Nelson was a progressive Democrat and a conservationist who became governor of Wisconsin in 1958. Through a penny tax on cigarettes he acquired one million acres of open space for state park land.

In 1962, Nelson went to the U.S. Senate. Among other things, he authored the bill that created the Appalachian Trail System. In several ways, for several years, he tried to bring the nation's polluted and endangered environment to the attention of Congress and the public.

In 1969, he hit upon the way. Modeled on the teach-in protests against the Vietnam War, Nelson envisioned a nationwide, environmental teach-in day. Earth Day, he called it and when, in April of 1970, the first Earth Day was held, it was a huge success.

But it may not have been so big a thing if not for the burning river.

That would be the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio, which runs through Cleveland and, because it was so filthy thick with oils and other pollutants, it used to, periodically, catch on fire.

Reportedly, the Cuyahoga caught on fire 13 times from 1868 to 1969. In 1952, the fire on the river was so bad it caused over a $1 million in damages to boats and riverside buildings. In June 1969, a photographer for Time magazine took pictures of the smoking, flaming river, which appeared in the publication and outraged, embarrassed and concerned a great many Americans.

The environment, and cleaning up the environment, became serious subjects on a lot of people's minds. But no one could say just how many people until, that is, April 22 of 1970, when 20 million Americans turned out in cities and towns and on college campuses throughout the country for Senator Nelson's Earth Day.

The one skill that everyone agrees is possessed by every successful politician is his or her ability to count people. When 20 million people want things done, and say so, things get done. By July, President Richard Nixon was proposing an Environmental Protection Agency. Soon after, Congress was establishing one. On December 2, 1970, the EPA was born.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the founding of the EPA might well be the best idea Richard Nixon ever had.

Brune is a fan of the EPA, as are many environmentalists.

Working through the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, the EPA has brought Americans cleaner air to breathe and safer water to drink, Brune said.

EPA regulations and enforcement have not just improved the view from downtown L.A. and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they have also saved tens of thousands of lives, every single year, and trillions of dollars, Brune said.

Brune also credits EPA with successfully fighting acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer.

Two big problems that the EPA can take credit for solving by regulating chlorofluorocarbons and sulfur emission respectively, he said. And the lead additives that used to be in gasoline are just one of the carcinogens the EPA has taken out of our daily lives. We'll never know exactly who didn't get cancer during the past four decades as a result, but it certainly could have been you or someone you love.

Brune also points to the Energy Star efficiency program that the EPA originated.

I can't think of another federal agency that's done so much to save millions of ordinary people money every day, he said. And you can choose a car with better gas mileage -- the EPA practically invented fuel efficiency.

Other environmentalists are equally as complimentary.

The Environmental Protection Agency has made terrific improvements in our health and quality of life by reducing pollution in the 40 years since it was first created, said Pete Altman, climate campaign director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It has sharply reduced pollution from automobiles, industrial smokestacks, utility plants and major sources of toxic chemicals and particulate matter, Altman said.

Several environmentalists noted that the EPA Superfund program, where highly polluted sites are identified and remediated, is virtually the only way to get polluted sites cleaned up, since corporations do not act responsibly and states lack the means to do anything substantial.

While conservationists and other greens sing Happy Birthday to the agency, not everyone is wearing a party cap.

Newt Gingrich, former Republican Congressman from Georgia and Speaker of the House in the 1990's, considers EPA an oversized bureaucracy that often oversteps its regulatory bounds.

Gringrich has said that EPA should be replaced with a leaner agency that will work to protect the environment and not serve as a political tool to be wielded by the White House.

In his 2010 book, To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Gingrich writes: The EPA has become an engine of undemocratic bureaucracy filled with people who seek to impose their fanatical views on an unwilling American population. The EPA and its entire regulation-litigation, Washington-centered, command-and-control bureaucracy needs to be replaced.

In a televised interview in May 2010, Gingrich said, if you look at the degree to which they now issue rules, believe they can regulate the entire carbon economy - and again, you want to talk about socialism. How about having a government agency of unelected people who decide they can literally rewrite the entire economy based on carbon?

Gingrich is referring to the controversy over what part carbon dioxide emissions play in environmental pollution. The Obama administration took office claiming it would reduce the nation's carbon footprint by introducing cap-and-trade legislation that would force companies to lower their CO2 emissions or pay for a failure to do so.

When cap-and-trade legislative proposals foundered against industry-backed opposition, the EPA approached the issue from a regulatory standpoint.

In April 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases, if the gases are indeed a threat to human health. The court directed the EPA to review the latest science on climate change and make a decision.

EPA officials under President Bush did not determine that carbon dioxide was a threat to human health, but EPA officials under President Obama did determine it was a health hazard, Patrick Michaels, senior fellow on environmental studies at the Cato Institute, pointed out.

Michaels added that bureaucracies like the EPA are probably going to be biased towards researchers whose findings are favorable to the bureaucracy's agenda.

The EPA's research found that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is detrimental to human health and, therefore, can be regulated by EPA. The agency has since issued guidelines to the states for regulating carbon dioxide emissions. There is opposition from business and industry, as well as their advocates in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and in government.

America faces a very difficult economic climate as unemployment continues to hover near 10 percent. At a time when small business owners and working families struggle to find stable financial footing, the EPA's decision creates more headwinds and is counter-productive to getting our economy back on track, said U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-VA, who will be House Majority Leader next year.

This Administration needs to focus on policies that encourage growth and job creation - period, Cantor said. Instead, this misguided plan allows the EPA to impose regulation that will place heavy administrative burdens on state agencies that will result in increased costs for businesses and consumers.

Cato's Michaels said that this latest flap on carbon dioxide is the result of the EPA growing from a needed agency into a large, unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy.

The EPA has grown tremendously since its inception and it suffers from the problems of a mature bureaucracy, Michaels said. It has many more employees and it goes looking for things to do. But what it finds to do has less of a return on the investment of its time and energy. Its regulations become more stringent while it produces less noticeable effects.

Michaels said that if people do not like what the EPA is doing, the only way they have of changing things is by voting in a new boss.

Since the EPA is a Cabinet-level agency, the EPA's boss is the President.

But the EPA's defenders say that business interests have always complained that environmental regulations would hurt business, and that history has, time and again, proven their concerns to be groundless.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, said the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions would be similar to the permitting process industrial facilities go through regarding other pollutants.

For 40 years, we have found a way to issue permits that allowed the economy to grow, McCarthy said. We will not stop that with the greenhouse gas process.

The US Chamber of Commerce, said Altman from the Natural Resources Defense Council, has launched a campaign to demonize the EPA and oppose the next generation of safeguards it is putting in place to protect our health. This isn't new for the Chamber. It has previously opposed efforts to reduce toxic mercury pollution and chemicals in kids' toys.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson recently went to bat for her agency.

The last 40 years show no evidence that environmental protection hinders economic growth, Jackson said. Neither the recent crisis nor any other period of economic turmoil was caused by environmental protection. In fact, a clean environment strengthens our economy.

Jackson continued: Special interests have spent millions of dollars making the case that we must choose the economy or the environment, attacking everything from removing lead in gasoline to cleaning up acid rain. They have consistently exaggerated the cost and scope of EPA actions, and in 40 years their predictions have not come true.

Instead of cutting productivity, we've cut pollution while the number of American cars, buildings and power plants has increased. Alleged 'job-killing' regulations have, according to the Commerce Department, sparked a homegrown environmental protection industry that employs more than 1.5 million Americans, Jackson said.

The Sierra Club's Brune, while wishing the agency happy birthday, also wished it good luck.

Whether it's regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, stopping the destruction of Appalachian watersheds from mountaintop-removal coal mining, or ensuring that we don't poison our drinking water with fracking chemicals and toxic coal ash, the EPA has some of its biggest fights still ahead of it, he said.