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The Nelson legacy: for us and our future

Gaylord Nelson receives the Presidential Medal of Honor for his lifelong work on the environment from President Bill Clinton

Gaylord Nelson receives the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1995 for his lifelong work on the environment from President Bill Clinton.

Education was always at the heart of Gaylord Nelson's work. He knew early on the success of environmental movement would depend not primarily on budgets or regulations, but on "a new awareness of the ecological bonds between man and his environment."

This goal was woven into the youth conservation camps his established as governor of Wisconsin, the green jobs across the country he procured funding for as a senator, as well as his National Environmental Education Act. Indeed, it was at the very core of his Earth Day idea.

In the years following the first Earth Day he strove to make its anniversary an annual celebration of ecological education in schools. Thousands of educators shared Nelson's goal of bolstering environmental literacy. In 1970, the University of Wisconsin founded its Institute for Environmental Studies — today bearing Nelson's name — and in 1985 the state legislature made Wisconsin the first state to require environmental education in its elementary and high schools.

President Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1995 on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. In the White House that day, Nelson reflected with pride that "there has been a sea change in the degree of environmentally-educated people in our society. They, in the end, will make the difference."

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

A map locating the State of Wisconsin tree planted on the National Mall by Gaylord Nelson