earthday.net logo

A former Senator fights on

Nelson greets Mariah Star, a Chippewa girl, at a 2003 ceremony honoring his work

Nelson greets Mariah Star, a Chippewa girl, at a 2003 ceremony honoring his work winning the Wild River designation for Wisconsin's Namekagon River as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1968.

In this 2003 image, Nelson had returned to the banks of the Namekagon to speak out against a utility's company plans to run a transmission line across the St. Croix river, a proposal the National Park Service would approve the next year.

As a boy, Nelson had played in all three of the state's rivers now protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: the Namekagon, the Wolf, and the St. Croix, which his legislative maneuvering narrowly saved from being dammed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Wisconsin boasts the Act's only charter rivers east of the Mississippi.

Gaylord Nelson was not the retiring type. Departing the Senate at the age of 64, he quickly accepted an invitation to serve as Counselor, and public face, of The Wilderness Society, a position he held until his death in 2005. Remaining in the political fray of Washington, he used this platform to continue his environmental advocacy for key battlegrounds such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Nelson spoke out on the ecological concerns of the moment, such as deforestation in the Pacific Northwest and the decimation of dolphins by tuna fishers. He fought passionately against the attempts of, first, the Reagan and Bush Administrations and, later, Newt Gingrich's Congress to gut the environmental legislation of the 1970s. He scoffed at the political discourse that put environmental protection in opposition to economic prosperity (see related document).

"The economy," he frequently told audiences, "is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment," and insisted that "countries must begin considering natural resources as capital." (see document)

At the end of the Cold War, Nelson called for the U.S. and Russia to reallocate resources from their vast military reserves to "husbanding the ecosystem of the planet." He also lobbied friends in Congress to stand up to the "vintage McCarthyism" of the executive branch following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Nelson in the 1990s gained notoriety in his campaign against overpopulation. The cause had long animated him. Paul Ehrlich, author of the environmental classic book The Population Bomb, had served as an Earth Day advisor to Nelson. While in the Senate, Nelson had advocated as solutions funding family planning services and reforming urban and suburban land use. Now he pushed instead for the U.S. to significantly shrink its immigration quotas and help other nations establish their own population controls. This stance elicited rebukes for its inattention to the plight of immigrants and the vast disparity in the ecological footprints of the developed and developing worlds.

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

Statement by Nelson and the Wilderness Society opposing drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

1992 response by Nelson to a New York Times editorial that weighed jobs against environmental protection

Statement by Nelson upon receiving the Beyond War Award in 1990, on his reasons for and participation in Earth Day and the modern environmental movement

2003 ceremony honoring Wild and Scenic Rivers work and opportunity to speak out against utility plans for transmission line