Background information for the media

"Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement" is a cooperative venture of the University of Wisconsin's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Center for Culture, History and the Environment (CHE), and the Nelson Family. Our consulting scholar was Adam Rome, Department of History at the Pennsylvania State University. Brian Hamilton, graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the principal researcher and creator of the web text. Melanie McCalmont, University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni, was the website designer and content editor.

Gaylord Nelson, Senate photo

Two senior scholars were instrumental in originating, planning, and consulting on the Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day website. They are: William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Gregg Mitman, past interim Director of The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

The website expands access to the riches of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Gaylord Nelson Collection. Donated by the Nelson Family, the Collection contains thousands of personal and official papers for the years 1954-2006 of former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, founder of Earth Day and Counselor of The Wilderness Society. Accessibility on the web continues a Gaylord Nelson focus of making environmental knowledge freely available to all citizens so that local and national decisions could be informed, collaborative, and effective.

Two entwined stories

The website's subtitle, "The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement," reflects the two entwined stories of this website. The first tells of Gaylord Nelson's central role in helping transform the conservation movement of the early twentieth century into the environmental movement as we know it today. Whereas earlier conservationists focused mainly on eliminating waste and using natural resources wisely, Nelson's environmentalist vision placed even greater emphasis on reducing pollution, regulating resource use, and broadening environmental politics to build a more just and sustainable society. Nelson's home state of Wisconsin is revealed in this first story to be an early leader in environmental education, resource planning, and broad citizen commitment to environmental protection.

The second story we tell is that of Earth Day, founded by Gaylord Nelson after years of fighting for a national environmental agenda with little effect. An astonishingly successful grassroots effort engaged millions of Americans in creating what Nelson envisioned as an "environmental teach-in" that awakened politicians to the urgent environmental concerns in their own constituencies. Nelson believed that the annual observance of Earth Week can be an opportunity for people to assess environmental progress and to renew their commitment to community-based environmental education. Nelson's political legacy of grassroots action and governmental protection endures in the modern environmental movement: millions of citizens worldwide who each year imagine what the celebration of Earth Day might accomplish in their own communities—and who work to make that vision a reality.

Site organization

"Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement" contains over 200 webpages with more than 500 original documents, images, quotes, and video media. Clicking on any home page image opens a primary document related to that image. Using the menu bars, the reader can read the stories in a linear fashion using the "next" buttons on each page. Links in each story take the reader to original documents from the Collection which can be browsed online or printed. PDFs have an OCR layer to make them searchable. An Index to the site's material and Links to more online resources are included under "Browse the Nelson Collection."

Top source documents on this site -- why or how Nelson founded Earth Day

  1. 1969 - Gaylord Nelson Newsletter from Senate November 1969 re: earliest Earth Day plans
  2. 1969 - Gaylord Nelson proposes to Congress a national day for the environment, October 8, 1969
  3. 1970 - See also longer Congressional speech with environmental agenda and proposed constitutional amendment, January 19, 1970
  4. 1971 - Gaylord Nelson's letter to Frank Stanton of CBS News, April 17, 1971
  5. 1990 - Gaylord Nelson statement to the Beyond War Society, December 1990
  6. 1993 - Gaylord Nelson explains the timeline of his Earth Day idea and discusses attributions of Earth Day to John McConnell

Media inquiries

The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison
550 N. Park Street, 122 Science Hall
Madison, WI 53706-1491
Phone: (608) 265-5296


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