Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

David J. Webber, MU Political Science, Jan. 1996

Gaylord A. Nelson "The Founder of Earth Day"

(June 4, 1916-

U.S. Senate 88th- 96th Congresses (1963-1981) Democrat-Wisconsin

While sponsoring significant environmental legislation, Senator Gaylord Nelson will be long remembered as the founder of Earth Day. First held on April 22, 1970, Earth Day has become an annual national event to learn about ecology and what we can do to reduce environmental harm. Senator Nelson's interest in the environment started as a boy and continues after he left the Senate in 1981. Nelson is still active in promoting Earth Day and is a counselor to The Wilderness Society, an organization in Washington, D.C. devoted to protecting the environment. In 1995, Senator Nelson was awarded the Medal of Freedom in recognition of a lifetime of public service.

His Boyhood

Gaylord Nelson was born the third of four children on June 4, 1916 in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, a community of about 700 people in the northwest corner of the state. Nelson's parents were involved in Clear Lake civic activities and Gaylord became accustomed to discussions about local, state, and national politics. His father, a country doctor, was mayor of Clear Lake and his mother was involved in many community service. His great-grandfather helped found the Republican Party in Wisconsin. Nelson remembers wanting to be in politics since he was 8 or 9 when his dad took him to hear Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, leader of the Progressive Party, speak from the back of a train. Nelson remembers being impressed by the gestures and speech and when his dad asked him if he wanted to be in politics he said: "Yes, but I'm afraid by the time I grew up Bob LaFollete would have settled all the problems and there will be nothing for me to do."

Nelson graduated from Clear Lake High School in 1934 where he played football and basketball. He attended San Jose State College in California, the same school his sister had attended. After graduating in 1939, he studied at the University of Wisconsin Law School where he graduated in 1942. Nelson served four years in the U.S. Army, seeing action in the Okinawa campaign, before starting a law and political career.

Wisconsin Politics

Gaylord Nelson first learned about politics when at 14 he organized campaign to plant trees along the five roads leading into Clear Lake. Nelson was not successful and faced his first, but not last, defeat in politics. After returning from service in World War II, Nelson ran for the Wisconsin legislature as a Progressive Republican in 1946. He lost. He ran for the state Senate as a Democrat in 1948 and this time he won and served ten years before being elected Governor in 1958.

One disappointment in his life was his father's death shortly after he had been nominated for governor but before he had been elected. In one of his last conversations with his father, his dad surprised him, recalling their conversation when Gaylord was a boy, by asking him "So do you think Bob LaFollete left you enough problems to work on when you will be governor?"

In the late 1950s, a crucial issues facing Wisconsin was the great demand for outdoor recreation. A 1959 study found that over 25 percent of Chicago residents took an over-night vacation trip to Wisconsin. Governor Nelson proposed a bold plan to expand the state's conservation efforts. In August 1961, Nelson won legislative approval in 1961 of the Outdoor Resources Action Program financed by a one-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the state acquisition of parks and wetlands. This 10-year program used "conservation easements" to purchase land rights to private property. Instead of actually buying the land, a conservation easements pays the property owner to preserve land as wilderness. The Outdoor Resources Action Program provided for recreation areas throughout the state for use as wildlife areas and public parks. While governor, Nelson proposed other environmental measure such as regulating detergents that were making their way to Wisconsin's rivers and streams.

Election to the Senate

In 1962, Governor Nelson defeated Senator Alexander Wiley, a Republican who had served 24 years, and Senator Nelson began an 18 year career in Congress. He gained an appointment to the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee allowing him to pursue his natural resources interests. On March 25, 1963, Nelson made his first speech before the U.S. Senate in support of a bill to ban detergents from water supplies. After describing the magnitude of the detergent pollution problem, some 3.8 billion pounds used each year resulting in serious foaming of rivers and lakes, Nelson commented on government's efforts to preserve the environment. "We need a comprehensive and nationwide program to save the national resources of America," he said. "We cannot be blind to the growing crisis of our environment. Our soil, our water, and our air are becoming more polluted every day. Our most priceless natural resources--trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats, scenic landscapes--are being destroyed."

Nelson aligned himself with liberal Democrats supporting the Great Society legislation of the Johnson Administration. He took a special interest in education programs, highway safety, and health care and was one of the first Senators to oppose the Vietnam War. In 1965, Nelson introduced the first legislation to ban DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), a chemical used to kill insects but which threatened many other species. DDT remains in the environment for a long time, building up in the ecosystem. From water runoff or from eating insects, some fish and birds accumulated dangerous amounts of DDT that caused abnormalities in offspring. DDT became a threat to human health as it were passed up the foodchain.

On January 19, 1970, Senator Nelson delivered a major speech in the Senate presenting his "environmental agenda," consisting of 11 items many of which he accomplished during his career. The first item was his proposal for a constitutional amendment that read: "Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States and every State shall guarantee this right." Next, he proposed that immediate action "to rid America in the 1970s of the massive pollution from five of the most heavily used product of our affluent age." These five are: internal combustion engine, hard pesticides, detergent pollution, aircraft pollution, and nonreturnable containers.

The third item on his agenda was to enhance the quality of life by establishing family planning. Fourth, creating a new environmental advocacy agency to involve citizens in environmental policy activities. Fifth, reduce ocean pollution by regulating oil drilling. Sixth, establish an environmental education program for all levels of education. Seventh, the development of mass transit to reduce the use of private automobiles. Eight, adoption of a national land use policy involving all levels of government to reduce the chaotic, unplanned combination of urban sprawl, industrial expansion, and air, water, land, and visual pollution. Ninth, establishment of a national minerals and resources policy that encourages wise use and conservation. Tenth, establishment of national air and water quality policies. Eleventh, creation of a nonpartisan national environmental political action organization which encourages public involvement at all levels of government. Over the next decade, Senator Nelson by working with other members of Congress made progress on many of these items on his environmental agenda.

The Idea for Earth Day

Senator Nelson searched for many years to find a way to focus public attention on the environment. He thought he had found a way to bring the environment into the political limelight when he had persuaded President John F. Kennedy to make a nationwide conservation tour in 1963. Although President Kennedy traveled through Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, and California speaking about the need to conserve natural resources the effort received little media attention. Senator Nelson realized he needed another mechanism for promoting environmental concern and asked himself "how are we going to get the nation to wake up and pay attention to the most important challenge the human specifies faces on the planet?" While reading an article on anti-Vietnam War teach-ins that were organized on college campuses across the nation to protest that War, the thought occurred to him: Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment? Upon returning to Washington, Nelson raised the funds to get Earth Day started. He wrote letters to all 50 governors and the mayors of major cities asking them to issue Earth Day Proclamations. He sent an Earth Day article to all college newspapers explaining the event and one to Scholastic Magazine, which went to most high schools and grade schools.

It worked. An estimated twenty million people participated in educational activities and community events demonstrating their interest in the environment. Congress recessed for the day so that House and Senate members could speak about the environment and attend community events. In New York city, Mayor John Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue to automobile traffic and 100,000 people attended an ecology fair in Central Park.

In Earth Day ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin, Senator Nelson declared:
Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all living creatures. . .The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical, and financial commitment- -far beyond any effort made before."

Across the nation, ten thousand grade schools and high schools, two thousand colleages, and one thousand communities were involved in Earth Day activities. It was a massive grass roots event where schools and communities organized themselves once they heard the idea. Earth Day was a success. American Heritage Magazine described Earth Day as "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy" and said "American politics and public policy would never be the same again."

In addition to initiating Earth Day, Senator Nelson has promoted public interest in the environment by publishing two books devoted to expressing concerns about environmental damage. In American's Last Chance, he reviews the harm to land, water, and air that humans are causing. Senator Nelson proposed an agenda for environmental legislation which resulted in new laws to protect the environment. The second book, What are Me and You Gonna Do? is a collection of children's letters to Senator Nelson about the environment." Nelson summarizes the book: "These young people are asking why their elders have taken such a beautiful world and are spoiling if for their children and grandchildren. They are asking why we don't stop the destruction." The Senator asks: "Well, why don't we?"

Congressional Achievements

Senator Nelson sponsored legislation to preserve the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trial in the eastern United States and the National Trial Systems Act which became law in 1968. He introduced bills that became part of the Clean Air Act, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Water Quality Act, and the National Lakes Preservation Act. Nelson is slow to claim credit for passing a particular piece of legislation. "Most often," Nelson says, "legislating involves lots of people. Usually I would ask the committee chairman and Senators for states most affected to co-sponsor my bills. Plus you need to find a sponsor in the House and often the Executive Branch will want to sponsor the same bill. So lots of people are responsible for a bill being passed."

While serving on the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee throughout most of his Senate career, Nelson was very active on other domestic policy issues. During his Senate service, he served on the Finance Committee, he chaired the Monopoly Subcommittee on Small Business, the Small Business Committee, the Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty of the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, and the special committee assigned to formulate a code of the ethics for the Senate.

Life After the Senate

Nelson was unexpectedly defeated in 1980 by Robert W. Kasten, the election in which Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter. Nelson lost the election by 59,000 votes out of the more than 2.1 million that were cast. Three weeks before the election, polls conducted by the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel showed Nelson 20 points ahead. Nelson said he knew it was over when he was carrying Milwaukee by only a 56-44 margin at 10:30 on election night. Nelson avoided the disappointment of defeat and moved on to a job at the Wilderness Society working toward the same environmental goals he had pursued in the Senate. "I've had a marvelous career, I've enjoyed what I've done, and there is no reason to fussing and worrying about the past. When I lost, I did not permit myself to mope around about it." Nelson acknowledges that he misses the Senate but says "Since I was a boy I had dreamed about being in the Senate, but I never thought it would happen. And then it did."

In 1981, Nelson became counselor to The Wilderness Society, an organization in Washington, D.C. devoted to protecting the environment. He is still active in promoting Earth Day. In 1995, at the age of 79, he gave 34 speeches in 3 months promoting the 25th Anniversary of Earth Day. The theme of each speech was the same: Forging and maintaining a sustainable society is THE CHALLENGE for this and all generations to come.

Nelson has twice received awards from the United Nations--in 1982, he received their Environmental Leadership Award and in 1992, he received the "Only One Earth" award. Additionally, he was honored by his native state in their establishing a Gaylord Nelson State Park in Madison, Wisconsin and by his home town with the the Gaylord Nelson room in the town museum in Clear Lake, a small town a long way from Washington, DC.

In September 1995, Senator Nelson was award the Medal of Freedom--our nation's highest civilian honor. In making the award, President Bill Clinton said: 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 Safe Drinking Water Act. He also set a standard for people in public service to care about the environment and to try to do something about it. And I think that the Vice President would want me to say that young people like Al Gore, back in 1970, realized, because of Gaylord Nelson, that if they got into public service, they could do something to preserve our environment for future generations.

In the 1970s, when a river was so polluted it actually caught on fire, Gaylord Nelson spoke up. He insisted that Americans deserved the safety that comes from knowing the world we live in does not make us sick. He warned that our leaders should not let partisan politics divert us from responsibility to our shared environment. He inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural resources is the stewardship of the American Dream. He is the worthy heir of the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and the Vice President's work and that of all other environmentalist today is the worthy heir of Gaylord Nelson.


June 4, 1916 Gaylord Nelson born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin.

1942 graduates from University of Wisconsin Law School and enlists in the U.S. Army

1946 Defeated in first try for elected office

1947 marries Carrie Lee Dotson and begins law practice in Madison, Wisconsin

1948 elected to Wisconsin Senate

1958 elected governor of Wisconsin

1962 elected to U.S. Senate

March 25, 1963 delivers his first Senate speech--it was on the environment

October, 1963 Conservation Tour with President Kennedy

April 22, 1970 the first Earth Day is held

1980 defeated for re-election, becomes director of the Wilderness Society April 22, 1995 serves as honorary chair, Earth Day 1995

September,1995 Received Presidential Medal of Freedom Award

Books by Gaylord Nelson

America's Last Chance. 1970 What are me and you gonna do? Children's letters to Senator Gaylord Nelson about the Environment.

Further Reading About Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Nelson: A Day for the Earth, by Jeffrey Shulman and Teresa Rogers, Twenty-First Century Books. 1992

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