By Heather Fulton
From a wilderness-loving boy to a passionate political leader, Gaylord Nelson paved the way for environmental law and founded the day we celebrate our planet – Earth Day.
Born June 4,1916, in northern Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson was raised admiring the beauty of the land and respecting progressive politics. At an early age, his mother taught him about the region’s flora and fauna while his father helped facilitate Nelson’s political education.
After high school, Nelson attended San Jose State College, where he received his bachelor’s degree. He earned his law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. When World War II started, Nelson joined the U.S. Army and served four years. After the war ended, Nelson returned to Wisconsin to practice law. He ran as a progressive Republican for the state legislature in 1946, but lost his first race. Two years later, he ran as a Democrat for the state Senate and won. He served 10 years in the Senate before being elected governor of Wisconsin in 1958.
While in office, Nelson created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program, a plan to expand state-protected parks and wetlands that was funded by a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
Nelson was elected in the U.S. Senate in 1962 where he gained an appointment to the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which allowed him to pursue his interests in natural resource conservation. He authored legislation to preserve the Appalachian Trail and to create a national hiking trail system. He also sponsored or co-sponsored many key pieces of environmental legislation, including the Wilderness Act and the Alaska Lands Act.
In 1962 Nelson helped President Kennedy organize a national tour for conservation and the environment. Nelson pushed programs like Operation Mainstream, which allocated funding that helped create conservation jobs and provide skills training for the poor and elderly under the Green Thumb project.
Nelson won protection for the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. He also introduced the first legislation to ban DDT in 1965.
Despite these successes, Nelson had trouble persuading his colleagues in Congress to take ecological concerns seriously. He came up with an idea in 1969 that would become his legacy.
Nelson suggested dedicating a full day to teach people about the environment. He believed that if people knew more about issues concerning the environment, they would demand it be better protected. His proposal was accepted with overwhelming support, and the national media widely broadcast the plans for “Earth Day.”
An estimated 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. They aimed to confront the ecological issues affecting their local and global environments and to demand that they and their elected officials take action.
Earth Day jump-started the “Environmental Decade” of radical legislative reforms, including the Clean Water Acts, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Education Act, the National Hiking Trails and the National Scenic Trails Acts, and the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
Nelson left the Senate in January 1981, but continued his environmental advocacy as a counselor of The Wilderness Society. He was involved in a variety of land preservation issues, including the protection of national parks, expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System and the elimination of logging subsidies.
In 1995 Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and served as the honorary chair of Earth Day. President Clinton noted, “As the founder of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event. He also set a standard for people in public service to care about the environment and try to do something about it.”
In 2002 the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was named in his honor.
Nelson died on July 3, 2005, at the age of 89.