Redefining environmentalism in the 1960s

Gaylord Nelson and project crew chief discussing conservation in Wisconsin forests

Gaylord Nelson conversing in a Wisconsin forest with a Nelson Amendment project crew chief, circa 1968. Nelson fought to regulate industrial discharge of industrial chemicals but also supported industry efforts to reclaim degraded land, forests and rivers.

As Governor of Wisconsin in the 1960s, Nelson's definition of a new environmentalism began to take shape. He had won widespread, bipartisan acclaim in Wisconsin and across the nation for his conservation measures. Nelson's vision grew to encompass not just wise use of natural resources but a democratic agenda, diversity of uses, human-based solutions to pollution, and political action on a larger scale.

An early example of this new environmentalism was Gov. Nelson's overhaul of Wisconsin's natural resource program. He condensed a sprawling bureaucracy into a single Department of Resource Development, and established a Youth Conservation Corps to create green jobs for over 1,000 unemployed young people. Most striking, Nelson fought to earmark $50 million for the Outdoor Recreation Action Program (ORAP) to acquire thousands of acres of land to be converted into public parks and wilderness areas.

Once in the Senate in 1963, Nelson began to speak of conserving not just natural resources, but human resources as well. "We cannot," he wrote in 1964, "let a situation continue in which millions of our fellow citizens do not have a suitable environment in which to live and raise their families." To combat the poverty that threatened "both the health of [urban and rural] inhabitants and the social health of the community," Nelson proposed a slate of federally-funded green jobs. He surveyed officials across the country and reported to President Johnson that 425,000 man-years of labor existed in potential conservation projects that could break "families out of the tragic cycle of poverty."

However, as more ecological threats presented themselves, it became clear to Nelson that even exorbitant public spending would not be able to ensure a healthy environment. The pesticide DDT, which Nelson and his family had seen sprayed on the lawns of Maple Bluff, began turning up in the nation's fish and ground water. The synthetic chemicals in detergents such as phosphates and the byproducts of mining and industrial production such as mercury and PCBs spread through the nation's waterways. Car emissions sullied the air, contaminants hid in food and pharmaceuticals, and unchecked urban sprawl polluted rivers and disrupted ecosystems. "We are discovering," Nelson pronounced in 1965, "that man cannot live or act apart from his environment."

A modern environmentalism had to include federal regulations and protections for the nation. He called for sweeping, immediate government regulation—including bans on pesticides, the end of the internal combustion engine, bans on ocean waste dumping, and even a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that "every person has the right to a decent environment."

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

A newsletter from the Isaac Walton League describing Nelson's speech on the environment to their annual convention

Image of Governor Nelson briefing the ORAP project in Wisconsin

Gov Nelson's remarks on new statewide efforts to apply both science and politics to preserve Wisconsin lakes and streams

Remarks by Senator Nelson on the Constructive Work Act of 1964 and the importance of conservation in cities of both natural and human resources

Speech on the importance of the public role in conservation to the 27th North American Wildlife Conference