Nelson, Gaylord

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Gaylord Nelson

BORN: June 4, 1916 • Clear Lake, Wisconsin

DIED: July 3, 2005 • Kensington, Maryland

American environmental activist; politician

Gaylord Nelson was a U.S. senator who helped launch the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Often named as the annual commemoration's founder, the environmentally friendly politician rejected such honors, pointing out instead that a day for humankind to honor Earth and renew a pledge to protect it was simply an idea whose time had come. "The reason Earth Day worked is that it organized itself," Nelson was quoted as saying by Keith Schneider of the New York Times. "The idea was out there and everybody grabbed it. I wanted a demonstration by so many people that politicians would say, 'Holy cow, people care about this.'"

"Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all living creatures."

Early introduction to politics

Gaylord Anton Nelson was born on June 4, 1916, and grew up in the small community of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. Nelson's father was the town's doctor as well as its mayor for a time. One of Nelson's great-grandfathers had been one of the founders of the Republican Party of Wisconsin many years back, and Nelson's mother was active in a number of civic causes. Early in life, Nelson learned about conservation. His father saved paper by using the back of advertisements as writing paper.

During Nelson's childhood, his father took him to hear one of the state's most famous political leaders give a speech. That was Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, former Wisconsin governor who was a U.S. Senator at the time and the 1924 Progressive Party candidate for president. Nelson was fascinated by LaFollette's words. The idea of a political career seemed interesting to the young Nelson, but he thought that by the time he was old enough to seek office, the dynamic LaFollette likely would have solved all the major problems of the day.

Nelson played various sports at Clear Lake High School before graduating in 1934. He headed west for college, entering San Jose State College in California. After earning his degree in 1939, he entered law school at the University of Wisconsin, then served in the U.S. Army during World War II (1939–45), a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan. His unit faced combat in the Pacific Theater, the name for the warfront on the many Japanese-controlled islands of the Pacific Ocean. Nelson's unit fought as part of the three-month campaign to capture the island of Okinawa.

Interest in conservation

Nelson tried his hand as a lawyer after returning home from the war. During this time, he met environmentalist Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), author of The Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Leopold, who believed in respecting the land and preserving it for future generations, advocated the creation of wilderness areas that could be enjoyed by future generations. Meeting Leopold had a profound effect on Nelson, inspiring him in his future quest to protect the environment.

Nelson first campaigned for public office in 1946, running unsuccessfully for a seat in the Wisconsin legislature on the Progressive Republican ticket. He married Carrie Lee Dotson, an army nurse, in 1947 and eventually had three children (two sons and a daughter). A year later, after joining the state Democratic Party, he was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate. He proved to be a popular politician and eventually became governor in 1958. Over the next four years, Nelson helped to make Wisconsin a national leader in conservation. The state had immense forests and hundreds of miles of shorelines along the Great Lakes. It was a popular vacation spot for the state's residents as well as people from neighboring states. Tourism brought significant revenue into the state. The new governor thought it important to preserve the natural beauty for future generations.

Nelson set to work gathering the necessary legislative support for a conservation program, which went into effect in August 1961. This allowed for the purchase of new land to be added to the list of parks and wetlands already managed by the state. According to the Wilderness Society, "[t]he goal was to acquire one million acres of Wisconsin park land, wetlands, and other open space, and it was funded by a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes." Nelson's program used a new strategy known as "conservation easements." This let the state purchase land rights to private property, but the land owner would be compensated to preserve it in its wilderness state. Nelson's unique program was the first of its kind in the United States and was picked up in other states.

Nelson ran for the U.S. Senate in 1962, beating out a Republican who had held the office for many years. Nelson brought his interest in environmental issues to the Senate floor. His first official speech there called attention to pollution in rivers, lakes, and streams. At the time, some laundry detergents contained phosphates, a compound which does not break down easily as it travels through the system. Because of this, some rivers actually foamed up with suds. In 1963 Nelson argued in favor of a ban on phosphate-heavy detergents, but noted that it was only the first step. He called for a nationwide program to protect the country's national resources.

Leads fight to preserve the environment

Nelson realized that there had to be much more of a public-relations effort, outside the Senate chambers, in order to make Americans more aware of environmental issues. He urged President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) to make a nationwide conservation tour to draw attention to the need to protect the environment. Kennedy visited several states in September 1963, but little interest came out of the effort.

In 1964 Nelson became one of the sponsors of the Wilderness Act, which set aside some 9 million acres (37,000 square kilometers) for federal protection. It was signed into law by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) in September 1964. A few years later, Nelson was also involved in securing passage of the Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. This law allowed either the Department of the Interior or the U.S. Congress to name certain rivers to be put under federal protection. They might host unusual or endangered species of fish—those in danger of becoming extinct, usually because of environmental changes caused by humans—or they might simply be admired because of their breathtaking scenery. The act did not protect such rivers from development along the shoreline, but did ensure that they could not be dammed, held back with barriers in order to control water levels, or their flow otherwise altered. Thanks to Nelson's efforts, new national scenic seashores and lakeshores came under the official protection of the National Park Service. These include two in the Great Lakes region, Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Wisconsin along Lake Superior, and Sleeping Bear Dunes along the coast of Lake Michigan.

Still searching for a way to awaken public interest and promote activism on environmental issues, Nelson read about "teach-ins" being held on college campuses at the time. Teach-ins are loosely organized, lengthy gatherings, typically revolving around a controversial issue, where participants learn more about the topic. At the time, teach-ins were taking place to rally support against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). As a senator, Nelson had voted against President Johnson's requests to the U.S. Congress to increase U.S. military aid in the southeast Asian conflict. Nelson thought the teach-in idea could be applied to environmental issues and focus positive attention on the need to protect the planet and its resources. In September 1969 he gave a speech in Seattle, Washington, in which he announced that the first "Earth Day" would be held the following April. As noted in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nelson said the idea "took off like gangbusters."

Nelson outlined his ideas about the environment in a speech he delivered to the Senate in January 1970. Nelson addressed various points and began with a proposed constitutional amendment that would add another right to the list that Americans were guaranteed: the right to "a decent environment." As recorded on Senator Barbara Boxer's Web site, Nelson also sought to "[r]id America of massive pollution from the internal combustion engine, hard pesticides, detergent pollution, aircraft pollution, and nonreturnable containers." He also aimed to "[r]educe ocean pollution by regulating oil drilling" and "[d]evelop mass transit to reduce the use of private automobilies." In addition, he suggested creating "a national land use policy to reduce the chaotic, unplanned combination of urban sprawl, industrial expansion, and air, water, land, and

John McConnell

Although Gaylord Nelson is known as the founder of Earth Day, environmental activist John McConnell introduced the idea a few months earlier. Celebrated in March, McConnell's event is known as International Earth Day.

Born in Iowa in 1915, McConnell became a peace and environmental activist whose ideas were strongly influenced by his Christian beliefs. During World War II (1939–45), he served in the Merchant Marines. After the war, he worked as a law school administrator in California before settling in North Carolina in the mid-1950s as a newspaper publisher. When the Soviet Union made the first successful launch of a satellite, Sputnik, into space in 1957, McConnell wrote an editorial that urged the United States to not compete with the Russians, but to work together instead. The Soviet Union, which was dissolved in 1991, was a collection of nations dominated by Russia. It was considered America's greatest enemy from the late 1940s to the late 1980s.

McConnell was interviewed by national news organizations because of his editorial. He formed the Star of Hope foundation to further international peace efforts through scientific cooperation. After moving back to California, he became active in a food-relief effort to help Asian refugees. McConnell's efforts to encourage international cooperation in the space program were unsuccessful. However, when a U.S. satellite sent back a majestic image of Earth from space, McConnell used this to create what he called the Earth Flag. The image symbolized the idea that the rights of the planet should be greater than the wishes of any individual nation. In 1969 he spoke at a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Conference in San Francisco, urging that a day be set aside to honor the Earth and acknowledge humankind's role as caretakers, not destroyers. He later appeared before San Francisco city officials and proposed that "Earth Day" be celebrated in the city. The first official Earth Day was held on March 21, 1970, in that city, one month before Nelson's national event. In 1971 the United Nations sponsored International Earth Day in March. This remains the date of International Earth Day, which is celebrated on the exact date of the Vernal Equinox, usually between the 20th and 23rd of March. This is one of the twice-yearly dates when the Sun crosses the Equator and brings equal amounts of day and night almost everywhere on the planet.

The Web site for McConnell's International Earth Day,, identifies itself as "the original Earth Day." The two sides have never come to an agreement over the date. "The statement that Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day is just not true," McConnell told CNN in 2000. "He switched the name to Earth Day to take advantage of our natural event." In the same news report, Nelson noted that the April date usually coincides with warmer weather, which increases participation in Earth Day-related activities and rallies. "McConnell may have used the phrase Earth Day before we did, [but] he knows our events were not similar," CNN quoted the retired senator as saying. "Ours was a political exercise. His was a peace exercise."

visual pollution." Other points in his speech called for an environmental education program for all grade levels.

The first Earth Day

As Earth Day neared, Nelson was active behind the scenes, too. He raised funds to help publicize Earth Day, and got Denis Hayes, a former Harvard Law School student, to serve as the national coordinator. Nelson also wrote letters to U.S. governors and mayors, asking for their support by issuing Earth Day announcements in their state or city. He wrote an article about his idea for Earth Day and why it was important, which he sent to college newspapers. The piece also appeared in the children's magazine Scholastic, which was sent out to nearly every elementary-school classroom in the country. It came at a time when science textbooks or classroom instruction had very little focus on how the modern age could prove harmful to the landscape, lakes, and rivers of America.

Nelson was certainly not alone in his concern. At the time, there was a growing awareness for the need to protect the air, land, and water, and unofficially this movement came to be known as "ecology." A person could show his or her support for this idea by wearing a T-shirt or patch with a green-colored symbol based on the Greek letter "theta." It combined the letters "e" and "o," and symbolized the themes of environment and organism. The symbol began to appear in late 1969, and it received a tremendous boost in the mass media when Look magazine used it as the modified version of the American flag that appeared in its issue on April 21, 1970, which was available on newsstands the day before Earth Day.

When April 22, 1970 arrived, even Nelson was surprised at how well his idea for Earth Day had been received. About twenty million Americans participated in events that day, from grade-school students to retirees. Even Congress had declared a recess so that lawmakers could travel back to their districts or states and speak on the topic. In White Plains, New York, local residents pulled tires and appliances out of the infamously filthy Bronx River. In areas throughout the country, students and other citizens picked up litter, cleaned debris from parks and streams, planted trees, and improved the environment in their local communities.

Nelson himself later commented on the first Earth Day in an article appearing on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site: "It was on that day that Americans made it clear that they understood and were deeply concerned over the deterioration of our environment and the mindless dissipation [wasteful use] of our resources. That day left a permanent impact on the politics of America. It forcibly thrust the issue of environmental quality and resources conservation into the political dialogue of the Nation. That was the important objective and achievement of Earth Day." He added that the activity showed the nation's leaders "that the people cared, that they were ready for political action, that the politicians had better get ready, too. In short, Earth Day launched the Environmental decade with a bang."

An enduring legacy

Later that year, President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) authorized a Reorganization Plan that created the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This gave responsibility for safeguarding the nation's air, water, and soil to one specific government office, and marked an important turning point in U.S. environmental policy. Nelson continued to be involved in major pieces of legislation designed to protect the environment. These included a bill to preserve the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail, as well as extensions to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and a federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act. Some commentators note that his most important achievement in Congress may have been the fuel-efficiency standards, which became law in 1975. Known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules, these regulations require automobile manufacturers to meet certain fuel-efficiency standards for all the cars designed and sold in each model year.

In 1972 Nelson turned down an offer from Senator George McGovern to run as his vice presidential candidate. In 1980, a re-election year for Nelson, he lost his Senate seat to another candidate by 59,000 votes. He retired from Congress the following year, signed on as a consultant to the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C., and remained active in the environmental movement. In 1990 he participated in the twentieth-anniversary celebrations of the first Earth Day and was interviewed by Bil Gilbert for Smithsonian magazine around the same time. Nelson told Gilbert that when he arrived in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s, there were only about five other senators who were interested in environmental issues. Much had changed since then, he told the magazine. "Obviously not all members of Congress are now what I would call environmentalists, but almost without exception they are sensitive to environmental issues," he said in the interview, "because they have to address them while campaigning—and they have at least one staff member who is knowledgeable about them."

In 1995 Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of public service by President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001). Nelson died on July 3, 2005, at the age of 89 at his Maryland home. Several weeks earlier, he had been too weak to make a public appearance for Earth Day 2005. But he did write a newspaper article for the Capitol Times of Madison, Wisconsin, which subsequently appeared in newspapers across the country. In it, he criticized President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) supporters in the Senate for quietly allowing a measure that would permit oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which had been under federal protection since 1960. "This is not just a sabotage [purposely disrupting] of environmental policy. It also undermines [weakens] any hope for a wise energy policy," he wrote. "When all the evidence calls for bold steps to conserve energy and develop alternative sources, this cynical [pessimistic] action implies that we can burn all the oil we want and just move on to the next untapped source, no matter where it might be…. Without presidential and congressional leadership, even an enlightened public cannot cope with the greatest challenge of our time."

Nelson left an environmental legacy that is recognized throughout the country and the world. As noted in Progressive, "Gaylord did more to protect our air, water, and earth than any other man in the country," said former Vice President Walter Mondale (1928–; served, 1977–81). "And so much of what he accomplished is under scandalous attack today." Wisconsin State Representative Spencer Black said of Nelson: "He was a real hero. He left a legacy we should remember every time the air we breathe is cleaner, the water we drink is purer, and the land we view is natural."

For More Information


Feder, Barnaby J. "The Business of Earth Day." New York Times (November 12, 1989).

Gilbert, Bil. "Earth Day Plus 20, and Counting." Smithsonian (April 1990): p. 46.

Nelson, Gaylord. "Ah, Wilderness! Save It." New York Times (September 4, 1984).

Nelson, Gaylord. "Bush, Congress Fail to Protect Ecosystem." Capitol Times (April 23, 2005).

Schneider, Keith. "Gaylord A. Nelson, Founder of Earth Day, Is Dead at 89." New York Times (July 4, 2005): p. B6.

Seely, Ron. "A Wisconsin Giant." Wisconsin State Journal (July 4, 2005): p. A1.


Black, Spencer. "Remembering Gaylord Nelson." Spencer Black State Representative, 77th Assembly District. (accessed July 5, 2006).

"Earth Day 2005." Official Website of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. (accessed on July 5, 2006). (accessed on July 5, 2006).

"Gaylord Nelson." Wilderness Society. (accessed on July 5, 2006).

"In Some Places, A Different Earth Day Is Celebrated" (April 21, 2000). (accessed on April 26, 2006).

International Earth Day. (accessed July 5, 2006).

Nakashima, Ryan. "Politician Who Started Earth Day Dies at 89." Chicago Sun-Times. (accessed July 5, 2006).

Nelson, Gaylord. "Earth Day '70: What It Meant." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (accessed July 5, 2006).

Rothschild, Matthew. "Remembering Gaylord Nelson" (July 14, 2005). Progressive. (accessed July 5, 2006).

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