In 1969, as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson came up with one of the most powerful ideas of his time: Earth Day. Inspired by the teach-ins dealing with the Vietnam War, Earth Day was an instant success, drawing 20 million participants the first year (1970). American Heritage Magazine called the first Earth Day "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."
For most of his 50-year professional career, Nelson was an unwavering advocate for the environment, long before "the environment" became a household term. In his ten years as a state senator, four years as governor of Wisconsin, and 18 years as a U.S. senator, he repeatedly called attention and applied public policy to issues of land protection, wildlife habitat, and environmental quality.
Gaylord Anton Nelson, born on June 4, 1916, grew up in the northern Wisconsin town of Clear Lake. He later said he learned to love the outdoors "by osmosis" and learned frugality from his father, Anton, a country doctor who conserved paper by writing his patient profiles on the back of drug advertisements. His mother, Mary, was a nurse.
Nelson's introduction to politics came early. He was 10 when his father took Nelson, nicknamed "Happy" as a child, to hear a campaign speech by Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr.
"On the way back home to Clear Lake, my dad asked if I wanted to be a senator," Nelson recalled. "I said I'd love to be a senator, but I'm afraid that Bob La Follette will solve all of our problems before I get a chance to serve."
Thirty-two years passed. In 1958, Nelson was about to become the Democratic nominee for governor of Wisconsin. At the party's convention in La Crosse, his father suffered a heart attack.
"I went into his hospital room," Nelson recalled, "and he looked up and smiled and he said, 'Do you think Bob La Follette left enough problems behind for you to solve?' He had never mentioned it for 32 years."
Nelson became the second Democrat during the 20th century to be elected governor of Wisconsin and served until 1962. While in office, he used a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program. The program allowed the state to buy hundreds of thousands of acres of Wisconsin park land, wetlands and other open space.
He was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate where he served a total of 18 years. He was the author of legislation to preserve the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail corridor, create a national hiking trails system and create the Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission and Operation Mainstream/Green Thumb, which employed the elderly in conservation projects. He sponsored or co-sponsored countless conservation bills, including the Wilderness Act, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the National Environmental Education Act. In Wisconsin, his U.S. Senate legacy includes the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
"There is no domestic issue more important to America in the long run than the conservation and proper use of our natural resources, including fresh water, clean air, tillable soil, forests, wilderness, habitat for wildlife, minerals and recreational assets," Nelson told President John F. Kennedy in a letter in 1963.
Despite the fact that his name became synonymous with environmental protection, Nelson's accomplishments spanned a range of other areas, including Senate ethics, government help for small businesses and dairy farms, the safety and availability of prescription drugs, the National Teacher Corps, automobile and tire safety, Head Start, tax and Social Security reform, a ban on the pesticide DDT and his prophetic and persistent opposition to the Vietnam War.
Nelson is most well-known, however, as the father of Earth Day, the first nationwide environmental protest designed. In 1969, he was on a trip to California, where he spoke at a water conference and took time to check out what he described as the "horrible scene" of a major environmental disaster - the Santa Barbara oil spill. On a plane, he picked up a copy of a magazine and read an article about teach-ins on college campuses against the Vietnam War.
"I suddenly said to myself, 'Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment?' " Nelson recalled.
That flash of insight led to establishment of Earth Day on April 22, 1970, which forever changed the political perception of the environment. It attracted an estimated 20 million people. Tens of thousands of people filled New York's Fifth Avenue, Congress adjourned so members could speak across the nation, and at least 2,000 colleges marked the occasion. Before that day, Nelson said, he was lucky to get 17 votes in the Senate on an environmental issue. Afterward, he was besieged by requests from senators and representatives who wanted speeches and other background materials.
Today, Earth Day is celebrated in 174 countries by over a half billion people, making it the most celebrated secular holiday in the world, a day on which people plant trees, clean up trash and lobby for the environment.
After leaving the Senate in 1981, Nelson continued his tireless campaign for environmental stewardship working as counselor for The Wilderness Society for 14 years. In his later years, when asked why he continued to work, Nelson was succinct.
"Our work's not done," he said.
In his public appearances, he advocated protecting America's national forests, national parks, and other public lands from harmful development. He also called for population control and environmentally sustainable development. He also served as Chairman of Earth Day XXV, which was celebrated April 22, 1995 and started the Earth Day Network's Earth Day 2000 Clean Energy Now! campaign.
Nelson's efforts on behalf of the environment earned him widespread admiration, affection, and acclaim. In 1990 he received the Ansel Adams Conservation Award, bestowed upon a federal official who has shown exceptional commitment to the cause of conservation and the fostering of an American land ethic. In 1992 the United Nations Environment Programme presented Nelson with the Only One World Award. In 1995 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.
"As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event: the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act," said the proclamation from President Clinton. In 2002, the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was renamed in his honor as the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Most recently in 2004, the Gaylord A. Nelson Wilderness was designated in Wisconsin, the newest wilderness added to the National Wilderness Preservation System (as of July 2005). Just one year later, however, on July 3, 2005, Nelson died of cardiovascular failure at his home in Kensington, Maryland. He was 89 years old.
1916: Born in Clear Lake, WI.
1939: Graduates from San Jose State College, CA.
1942: Graduates from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
1942-1946: Serves with the U.S. Army during World War II.
1946: Begins practicing law in Madison, WI.
1947: Marries Carrie Lee Dotson.
1948: Elected to first term as a Wisconsin state senator, serving until 1958.
1958: Elected Wisconsin governor serving two, two-year terms.
1962: Elected to first of three terms as U.S. senator.
1963: Proposes and then accompanies President John F. Kennedy on a national tour to promote conservation and environmental protection.
1970: Founds the first Earth Day on April 22.
1980: Defeated in re-election bid for U.S. Senate.
1981: Begins serving as counselor of The Wilderness Society.
1990: Receives the Ansel Adams Conservation Award.
1992: Receives the Only One World Award through the United Nations.
1995: Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedon; Serves as Chairman of Earth Day XXV.
2002: Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison renamed the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
2004: Designation of the Gaylord A. Nelson National Wilderness.
2005: Dies at age 89 at his Maryland home.
For more information about Gaylord Nelson and his views, see his book, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise and his new biography, The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson by Bill Christofferson.