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Building the "environmental decade"

Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

Having already secured the "wild and scenic" designation for Wisconsin's Saint Croix, Namekagon, and Wolf Rivers as well as the federal preservation of the Appalachian Trail, Nelson in 1970 was able to realize his dream of bringing the Apostle Islands into the national parks system. Nelson is shown here at the Apostle Islands.

Disinterest on Capitol Hill had long stifled ecological concerns. But after April 1970 a growing environmental awareness nurtured ten years of groundbreaking legislation, which became the bulwark of modern environmental law.

New topics reached Congress's docket, while green arguments changed existing debates. For years,Senator Proxmire led the fight against federal funding of supersonic jet technology (SST), denouncing it as a foolish misappropriation of tax dollars. In 1970 he added criticism of the plane's dirty emissions and threat to the ozone layer to his budgetary attack on the SST, gaining support from environmental groups for his campaign. This strategy helped him dismantle the program the next year.

Nelson thrived in this new era he helped usher in. His long fight against pesticides propelled forward when the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forbade all nonessential uses of DDT and agreed to Nelson's requests to ban aldrin and dieldrin and curb the use of the herbicide Agent Orange. Nelson led Congress to provide funding for alternative pest control methods and helped establish the precautionary principle with the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.

To limit air pollution, Congress enacted the Clear Air Act of 1970, which included Nelson's amendment setting a deadline by which cars must include emissions-reducing technologies. The Clean Water Act of 1972 incorporated Nelson's proposals to offer businesses low-interest loans to install pollution controls and $25 billion in grants to municipalities to build sewage treatment plants. In the same year, Nelson oversaw the passage of a ban on dumping in the oceans and Great Lakes.

Nelson continued to pursue an ambitious conservation agenda as well. Having already secured the "wild and scenic" designation for Wisconsin's Saint Croix, Namekagon, and Wolf Rivers as well as the federal preservation of the Appalachian Trail, in 1970 Nelson was able to realize his dream of bringing the Apostle Islands into the national parks system. Nelson, long opposed to the ecological damage wrought by the Army Corps of Engineers, played a role in the first defeat of a Corps project - damming the Kickapoo River - on environmental grounds. And, to the wildlife conservation assured by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Nelson added legal protections for predators and marine mammals.

The Environmental Decade came to an abrupt end with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Nelson, like several of his liberal colleagues, lost his seat. In his final weeks in office, he pushed through the preservation of 100 million acres in Alaska and, in his last legislative act, added 1,000 acres to the Saint Croix Scenic Riverway.

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

Letter from Sen Nelson protesting the EPA action permitting conflicting uses of the banned 2,4,5-T pesticide

Reprint of a Nelson speech on marine environmental and pollution control "The Future of the Sea" from March 1970

Interview with Nelson on the impact that the "environmental decade" had on us all

Statement from 1973 on Nelson's concerns for the politics of population growth and the environment