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.”
‘The Right to a Decent Environment’
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.”
Earth Day: A Simple Idea, a World of Change
Gaylord Nelson, the ambitious junior senator from Wisconsin, grew accustomed to disappointment in the 1960s.
In his first Senate speech, supporting a bill banning phosphates in detergents, he insisted that “we need this … just as desperately as we need the defense against atomic missiles.” That did not stop his fellow legislators from voting down the bill, just as similar pleas could not win him a single co-sponsor for his 1966 bill banning DDT.
While he was able to lure President Kennedy to take a “conservation tour” of Wisconsin and the West in 1963, he watched helplessly as the President, the press, and audiences preferred to debate taxes and Cold War politics.
To wake up Washington, he would need a new plan.
The idea came to him in August of 1969 after surveying the oil spill in Santa Barbara. For the past few years, college students had been staging teach-ins to educate their campuses about the war in Vietnam. What if, Nelson wondered, students used the same forum to raise environmental awareness, and what if they coordinate their events to fall on the same day, grabbing headlines and sending a strong environmental message to the Capitol?
He proposed the idea in front of a small, fledgling conservation group in Seattle on September 20. A short wire story broadcast the idea.
Seven months later, Nelson’s idea resulted in the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Millions of Americans observed Earth Day in April 1970, whether in groups of tens of thousands in New York or Philadelphia or with events big and small at thousands of colleges and schools across the country.
Building the ‘Environmental Decade’
Disinterest on Capitol Hill had long stifled ecological concerns. But after April 1970, a growing environmental awareness nurtured 10 years of groundbreaking legislation, which became the bulwark of modern environmental law.
New topics reached Congress’ docket, while green arguments changed existing debates. For years, Senator William 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.
Long opposed to the ecological damage wrought by the Army Corps of Engineers, Nelson 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.