Gaylord Nelson was a leading figure in the fight against environmental degradation and social injustice in the 20th century.
Growing up steeped in Wisconsin’s progressive heritage and New Deal liberalism, Nelson began his political career as one confident in both the political power of ordinary citizens and the government’s ability to promote the public good. Though the 1950s brought prosperity to some Americans, Nelson’s attention was with those in the city and the countryside who were disadvantaged. He never overlooked the social and ecological costs of technological innovation and industrial expansion.
As a senator, Nelson contributed to important liberal reforms but struggled for years to interest his colleagues in environmental protections. So he turned instead to the people, proposing April 22, 1970 as a day for Americans to speak out about the environmental crises they faced. Earth Day’s massive public support forced politicians to see the severity of the problems and the extent of public concern.
The first Earth Day galvanized Congress into creating some of the most important U.S. environmental legislation. Gaylord Nelson earned environmentalism a lasting place in national politics.
From the Land, for the People
Born in the North Woods of Wisconsin in 1916, Nelson grew up admiring both the beauty of the Wisconsin land and the progressive politics of the state’s famous Senator “Fighting Bob” La Follette. He earned his law degree at the University of Wisconsin and, after fighting in World War II, he returned to Madison where he helped revive the long-moribund Democratic Party.
As progressives fled a Republican Party under the sway of Joe McCarthy, Nelson and others invited them into a coalition that envisioned a liberal state government that used its regulatory power and tax revenue to address pressing social and economic problems.
The First ‘Conservation Governor’
Nelson’s innovative vision resonated with Wisconsin residents. Through the 1950s, residents had grown increasingly concerned with their crowded and dilapidated state parks, the exploitation of public resources by private industry, and the pollution of the state’s waterways.
Nelson promised comprehensive reforms and was elected to two terms as governor. In office, he established unprecedented high levels of public funding for education, health care, unemployment, highways, and urban and rural development.
But it was Nelson’s overhaul of the state’s natural resource program that earned him a national reputation as the “conservation governor.” 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 land to be converted into public parks and wilderness areas. The extreme popularity of these conservation measures catapulted Nelson into the U.S. Senate in 1962.
Fighting Pollution and Poverty in the Senate
In Washington, he helped President Kennedy to undertake a national tour for conservation and the environment. With President Johnson, he advanced civil rights legislation and waged the War on Poverty. Nelson saw these battles as part and parcel of his environmental agenda, believing:
“Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.”
Refusing to accept the notion that economic prosperity is at odds with environmental protection, Nelson pushed programs like Operation Mainstream, which appropriated millions of dollars for the creation of conservation jobs and skills training for the poor and the elderly under the Green Thumb project.
Despite these successes, Nelson struggled through the 1960s to get his colleagues in Congress to take ecological concerns seriously. Nelson spoke out early and often against the Vietnam War and ballooning defense spending, which he saw deflecting funds and focus away from domestic crises.
Nelson’s Earth Day: Giving Voice to a Concerned Nation
In 1969, Nelson devised a new approach to raise awareness and put pressure on politicians to act on environmental legislation.
Reflecting on the empowering effects of campus activism, Nelson proposed a day when citizens nationwide would host teach-ins to raise awareness of environmental problems. His proposal was met immediately with overwhelming support. The national media widely broadcast the plans for this so-called “Earth Day” and Nelson’s office was flooded by enthusiastic letters.
But while Nelson established a small national office to offer support to the thousands of grassroots efforts, he firmly rejected a top-down organization. Instead, “Earth Day planned itself,” he later reflected. An estimated 20 million Americans, young and old, gathered on April 22, 1970 to confront the ecological troubles in their cities, states, nation, and planet — and to demand action from themselves and from their elected officials.
The First Day of the ‘Environmental Decade’
Earth Day was a watershed moment for environmental politics, kicking off what is now termed the “Environmental Decade” of radical legislative reforms. After struggling to pass legislation through the 1960s, Nelson was now deeply involved in many of the most important environmental protection legislation:
- Clean Water Acts
- National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
- Federal Pesticides Act
- Clean Air Act
- Environmental Education Act
- National Hiking Trails and National Scenic Trails Acts
- Establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Gaylord Nelson’s Legacy
Like many of his liberal colleagues, Nelson lost his reelection bid in 1980 at the dawn of the Reagan era. But he remained a national figure in environmental politics as Counselor of the wilderness Society until his death in 2005. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians, in 1995. In the speech he gave that year to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, he kept his gaze on the horizon:
“The opportunity for a gradual but complete break with our destructive environmental history and a new beginning is at hand…. We can measure up to the challenge if we have the will to do so — that is the only question. I am optimistic that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society.”