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Earth Day and Gaylord Nelson's Environmental Legacy

By Carlos Ortiz, MELP candidate, Vermont Law School '22, Supervisor, Inpro Corporation

Gaylord Anton Nelson was born on June 4, 1916, in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, approximately 310 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It was in Clear Lake where his passion for the environment began at a young age. Growing up, he explored the wonders of nature in his own backyard, which proved to be a cornerstone throughout his personal life and political career.

After Nelson graduated from Clear Lake High school, he attended San Jose State Community College in California (now known as San Jose State University). He earned his bachelor's degree in political science in 1939. After college, Nelson moved back to Wisconsin to attend UW-Madison, where he studied law, earning his LL.B (or the modern-day J.D./law degree), and subsequently passed the bar in 1942. Nelson spent a short time practicing law before entering the United States Army, where he served as a First Lieutenant in the Pacific Theater on Okinawa Island, Japan.

After his meritorious Army service, Nelson ran for Wisconsin State Senate. He was elected in 1948 to the Wisconsin Senate and served there for ten years. This time prepared him to become Governor of Wisconsin in 1958, where his environmental legacy began. As governor, he created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program (ORAP), which led to the expansion of the Wisconsin State Park system. A first-of-a-kind tax method, ORAP, was funded by a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes and led to Nelson's earning the title of the first "Conservation Governor," which was a welcome political ideology among Wisconsinites at the time.

Nelson served two terms as Wisconsin Governor and then ran for U.S. Senate. He was elected in 1962, which was the same time Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was released. This book raised concerns about the widespread excessive use of the insecticide DDT and its detrimental impact on the environment. Nelson then persuaded sitting President John F. Kennedy to conduct a national tour focused on conservation issues in the western U.S. However, it ended up a bust since, at the time, Americans were more focused on geopolitical concerns like communism, Civil Rights, and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (PTBT).

These political roadblocks did not deter Nelson from his passionate pursuit of raising environmental and social issues in Washington. Although he faced resistance from political counterparts, from 1962 to 1969, Nelson worked hard to get buy-in from fellow lawmakers. He finally gained traction when Americans saw first-hand environmental deterioration, from Smog in Los Angeles and New York City, exacerbating respiratory issues, to the Cuyahoga River starting on fire. With the combination of these events, increased media coverage, and the rapid population decline of our national freedom symbol, the Bald Eagle lawmakers on Capitol Hill could no longer ignore these environmental issues. Americans had enough and were demanding action from Washington.

In 1969, Nelson proposed that grassroots movements across America increase consciousness of environmental and social injustices and "reclaim the environment that we have wrecked." To prepare, Nelson posted a full-page advertisement in The New York Times in January of 1970 to publicize a "Teach-In, a day of environmental action" to be held on Wednesday, April 22, 1970. Nelson knew that the date would coincide with universities' spring break and warmer weather, allowing greater involvement.

Finally, on April 22, 1970, Nelson gave his inaugural Earth Day speech in Denver, Colorado, highlighting a new set of ethics. "Our goal is a new American ethic that sets new standards for progress, emphasizing human dignity and well-being rather than an endless parade of technology that produces more gadgets, more waste, more pollution… Establishing quality on a par with quantity is going to require new national policies that quite frankly will interfere with what many have considered their right to use and abuse the air, the water, the land, just because that is what we have always done." Nelson likely had no idea the impact this day would have on the world and U.S. environmental policy.

Earth Day drew an estimated 20 million Americas into the streets to assure that their voices were heard; it was undoubtedly a success and coined Nelson as the "father of Earth Day." The impact finally put the environment on the national agenda. Congress responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which subsequently created statutory authorities to protect our land, resources, and workers from the adverse effects of pollution. These included the National Environmental Education Act (NEEA), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and the Clean Air Act (CAA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and Clean Water Act (CWA).

Earth Day has gained traction across the globe since that day in 1970 and continues to bring awareness to environmental issues, civic engagement, and social justice across Wisconsin and beyond. As of 2020, 193 countries engage in celebrating the movement, and an estimated one billion individuals worldwide participate in some activity related to Earth Day!

What can you do?

Begin educating yourself and your family members on the environmental impact you have by calculating your carbon footprint. You can also opt for meatless Mondays, calculate your water footprint, plant a garden, carpool, visit a farmers market, and unplug your appliances when not in use. You can find more ideas of everyday small actions here. And, don't forget your voice matters! Find your local legislator here; contact them and share your ideas or concerns.

To read Nelson's Earth Day Speech, visit: Sen. Gaylord Nelson's Earth Day Speech - Door County Pulse

To learn more about Earth Day history, visit

Join us today, April 22, 2021, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Presents Earth Day 2021: Nature at Work: Inspiring Just Responses for an Unruly World

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