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Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

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  • Ram Lau
    http://web.missouri.edu/~polidjw/Nelson.html David J. Webber, MU Political Science, Jan. 1996 Gaylord A. Nelson The Founder of Earth Day (June 4, 1916–July
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 5, 2005
      David J. Webber, MU Political Science, Jan. 1996
      Gaylord A. Nelson "The Founder of Earth Day"

      (June 4, 1916–July 3, 2005)

      U.S. Senate 88th-96th Congresses (1963-1981) Democrat-Wisconsin

      While sponsoring significant environmental legislation, Senator
      Gaylord Nelson will be long remembered as the founder of Earth Day.
      First held on April 22, 1970, Earth Day has become an annual
      national event to learn about ecology and what we can do to reduce
      environmental harm. Senator Nelson's interest in the environment
      started as a boy and continues after he left the Senate in 1981.
      Nelson is still active in promoting Earth Day and is a counselor to
      The Wilderness Society, an organization in Washington, D.C. devoted
      to protecting the environment. In 1995, Senator Nelson was awarded
      the Medal of Freedom in recognition of a lifetime of public service.

      His Boyhood

      Gaylord Nelson was born the third of four children on June 4, 1916
      in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, a community of about 700 people in the
      northwest corner of the state. Nelson's parents were involved in
      Clear Lake civic activities and Gaylord became accustomed to
      discussions about local, state, and national politics. His father, a
      country doctor, was mayor of Clear Lake and his mother was involved
      in many community service. His great-grandfather helped found the
      Republican Party in Wisconsin. Nelson remembers wanting to be in
      politics since he was 8 or 9 when his dad took him to hear
      Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, leader of the Progressive Party,
      speak from the back of a train. Nelson remembers being impressed by
      the gestures and speech and when his dad asked him if he wanted to
      be in politics he said: "Yes, but I'm afraid by the time I grew up
      Bob LaFollete would have settled all the problems and there will be
      nothing for me to do."

      Nelson graduated from Clear Lake High School in 1934 where he played
      football and basketball. He attended San Jose State College in
      California, the same school his sister had attended. After
      graduating in 1939, he studied at the University of Wisconsin Law
      School where he graduated in 1942. Nelson served four years in the
      U.S. Army, seeing action in the Okinawa campaign, before starting a
      law and political career.

      Wisconsin Politics

      Gaylord Nelson first learned about politics when at 14 he organized
      campaign to plant trees along the five roads leading into Clear
      Lake. Nelson was not successful and faced his first, but not last,
      defeat in politics. After returning from service in World War II,
      Nelson ran for the Wisconsin legislature as a Progressive Republican
      in 1946. He lost. He ran for the state Senate as a Democrat in 1948
      and this time he won and served ten years before being elected
      Governor in 1958.

      One disappointment in his life was his father's death shortly after
      he had been nominated for governor but before he had been elected.
      In one of his last conversations with his father, his dad surprised
      him, recalling their conversation when Gaylord was a boy, by asking
      him "So do you think Bob LaFollete left you enough problems to work
      on when you will be governor?"

      In the late 1950s, a crucial issues facing Wisconsin was the great
      demand for outdoor recreation. A 1959 study found that over 25
      percent of Chicago residents took an over-night vacation trip to
      Wisconsin. Governor Nelson proposed a bold plan to expand the
      state's conservation efforts. In August 1961, Nelson won legislative
      approval in 1961 of the Outdoor Resources Action Program financed by
      a one-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the state acquisition of
      parks and wetlands. This 10-year program used "conservation
      easements" to purchase land rights to private property. Instead of
      actually buying the land, a conservation easements pays the property
      owner to preserve land as wilderness. The Outdoor Resources Action
      Program provided for recreation areas throughout the state for use
      as wildlife areas and public parks. While governor, Nelson proposed
      other environmental measure such as regulating detergents that were
      making their way to Wisconsin's rivers and streams.

      Election to the Senate

      In 1962, Governor Nelson defeated Senator Alexander Wiley, a
      Republican who had served 24 years, and Senator Nelson began an 18
      year career in Congress. He gained an appointment to the Senate
      Interior and Insular Affairs Committee allowing him to pursue his
      natural resources interests. On March 25, 1963, Nelson made his
      first speech before the U.S. Senate in support of a bill to ban
      detergents from water supplies. After describing the magnitude of
      the detergent pollution problem, some 3.8 billion pounds used each
      year resulting in serious foaming of rivers and lakes, Nelson
      commented on government's efforts to preserve the environment. "We
      need a comprehensive and nationwide program to save the national
      resources of America," he said. "We cannot be blind to the growing
      crisis of our environment. Our soil, our water, and our air are
      becoming more polluted every day. Our most priceless natural
      resources--trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats, scenic
      landscapes--are being destroyed."

      Nelson aligned himself with liberal Democrats supporting the Great
      Society legislation of the Johnson Administration. He took a special
      interest in education programs, highway safety, and health care and
      was one of the first Senators to oppose the Vietnam War. In 1965,
      Nelson introduced the first legislation to ban DDT (dichloro-
      diphenyl-trichloroethane), a chemical used to kill insects but which
      threatened many other species. DDT remains in the environment for a
      long time, building up in the ecosystem. From water runoff or from
      eating insects, some fish and birds accumulated dangerous amounts of
      DDT that caused abnormalities in offspring. DDT became a threat to
      human health as it were passed up the foodchain.

      On January 19, 1970, Senator Nelson delivered a major speech in the
      Senate presenting his "environmental agenda," consisting of 11 items
      many of which he accomplished during his career. The first item was
      his proposal for a constitutional amendment that read: "Every person
      has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States
      and every State shall guarantee this right." Next, he proposed that
      immediate action "to rid America in the 1970s of the massive
      pollution from five of the most heavily used product of our affluent
      age." These five are: internal combustion engine, hard pesticides,
      detergent pollution, aircraft pollution, and nonreturnable

      The third item on his agenda was to enhance the quality of life by
      establishing family planning. Fourth, creating a new environmental
      advocacy agency to involve citizens in environmental policy
      activities. Fifth, reduce ocean pollution by regulating oil
      drilling. Sixth, establish an environmental education program for
      all levels of education. Seventh, the development of mass transit to
      reduce the use of private automobiles. Eight, adoption of a national
      land use policy involving all levels of government to reduce the
      chaotic, unplanned combination of urban sprawl, industrial
      expansion, and air, water, land, and visual pollution. Ninth,
      establishment of a national minerals and resources policy that
      encourages wise use and conservation. Tenth, establishment of
      national air and water quality policies. Eleventh, creation of a
      nonpartisan national environmental political action organization
      which encourages public involvement at all levels of government.
      Over the next decade, Senator Nelson by working with other members
      of Congress made progress on many of these items on his
      environmental agenda.

      The Idea for Earth Day

      Senator Nelson searched for many years to find a way to focus public
      attention on the environment. He thought he had found a way to bring
      the environment into the political limelight when he had persuaded
      President John F. Kennedy to make a nationwide conservation tour in
      1963. Although President Kennedy traveled through Pennsylvania,
      Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, and
      California speaking about the need to conserve natural resources the
      effort received little media attention. Senator Nelson realized he
      needed another mechanism for promoting environmental concern and
      asked himself "how are we going to get the nation to wake up and pay
      attention to the most important challenge the human specifies faces
      on the planet?" While reading an article on anti-Vietnam War teach-
      ins that were organized on college campuses across the nation to
      protest that War, the thought occurred to him: Why not have a
      nationwide teach-in on the environment? Upon returning to
      Washington, Nelson raised the funds to get Earth Day started. He
      wrote letters to all 50 governors and the mayors of major cities
      asking them to issue Earth Day Proclamations. He sent an Earth Day
      article to all college newspapers explaining the event and one to
      Scholastic Magazine, which went to most high schools and grade

      It worked. An estimated twenty million people participated in
      educational activities and community events demonstrating their
      interest in the environment. Congress recessed for the day so that
      House and Senate members could speak about the environment and
      attend community events. In New York city, Mayor John Lindsay closed
      Fifth Avenue to automobile traffic and 100,000 people attended an
      ecology fair in Central Park.

      In Earth Day ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin, Senator
      Nelson declared:
      Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect
      for all other human creatures and for all living creatures. . .The
      battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his
      environment, between man and other living creatures will require a
      long, sustained, political, moral, ethical, and financial commitment-
      -far beyond any effort made before."

      Across the nation, ten thousand grade schools and high schools, two
      thousand colleages, and one thousand communities were involved in
      Earth Day activities. It was a massive grass roots event where
      schools and communities organized themselves once they heard the
      idea. Earth Day was a success. American Heritage Magazine described
      Earth Day as "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history
      of democracy" and said "American politics and public policy would
      never be the same again."

      In addition to initiating Earth Day, Senator Nelson has promoted
      public interest in the environment by publishing two books devoted
      to expressing concerns about environmental damage. In American's
      Last Chance, he reviews the harm to land, water, and air that humans
      are causing. Senator Nelson proposed an agenda for environmental
      legislation which resulted in new laws to protect the environment.
      The second book, What are Me and You Gonna Do? is a collection of
      children's letters to Senator Nelson about the environment." Nelson
      summarizes the book: "These young people are asking why their elders
      have taken such a beautiful world and are spoiling if for their
      children and grandchildren. They are asking why we don't stop the
      destruction." The Senator asks: "Well, why don't we?"

      Congressional Achievements

      Senator Nelson sponsored legislation to preserve the 2,000 mile
      Appalachian Trial in the eastern United States and the National
      Trial Systems Act which became law in 1968. He introduced bills that
      became part of the Clean Air Act, the Surface Mining and Reclamation
      Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Water
      Quality Act, and the National Lakes Preservation Act. Nelson is slow
      to claim credit for passing a particular piece of legislation. "Most
      often," Nelson says, "legislating involves lots of people. Usually I
      would ask the committee chairman and Senators for states most
      affected to co-sponsor my bills. Plus you need to find a sponsor in
      the House and often the Executive Branch will want to sponsor the
      same bill. So lots of people are responsible for a bill being

      While serving on the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee
      throughout most of his Senate career, Nelson was very active on
      other domestic policy issues. During his Senate service, he served
      on the Finance Committee, he chaired the Monopoly Subcommittee on
      Small Business, the Small Business Committee, the Subcommittee on
      Employment, Manpower and Poverty of the Labor and Public Welfare
      Committee, and the special committee assigned to formulate a code of
      the ethics for the Senate.

      Life After the Senate

      Nelson was unexpectedly defeated in 1980 by Robert W. Kasten, the
      election in which Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter.
      Nelson lost the election by 59,000 votes out of the more than 2.1
      million that were cast. Three weeks before the election, polls
      conducted by the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel showed
      Nelson 20 points ahead. Nelson said he knew it was over when he was
      carrying Milwaukee by only a 56-44 margin at 10:30 on election
      night. Nelson avoided the disappointment of defeat and moved on to a
      job at the Wilderness Society working toward the same environmental
      goals he had pursued in the Senate. "I've had a marvelous career,
      I've enjoyed what I've done, and there is no reason to fussing and
      worrying about the past. When I lost, I did not permit myself to
      mope around about it." Nelson acknowledges that he misses the Senate
      but says "Since I was a boy I had dreamed about being in the Senate,
      but I never thought it would happen. And then it did."

      In 1981, Nelson became counselor to The Wilderness Society, an
      organization in Washington, D.C. devoted to protecting the
      environment. He is still active in promoting Earth Day. In 1995, at
      the age of 79, he gave 34 speeches in 3 months promoting the 25th
      Anniversary of Earth Day. The theme of each speech was the same:
      Forging and maintaining a sustainable society is THE CHALLENGE for
      this and all generations to come.

      Nelson has twice received awards from the United Nations--in 1982,
      he received their Environmental Leadership Award and in 1992, he
      received the "Only One Earth" award. Additionally, he was honored by
      his native state in their establishing a Gaylord Nelson State Park
      in Madison, Wisconsin and by his home town with the the Gaylord
      Nelson room in the town museum in Clear Lake, a small town a long
      way from Washington, DC.

      In September 1995, Senator Nelson was award the Medal of Freedom--
      our nation's highest civilian honor. In making the award, President
      Bill Clinton said: As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather
      of all that grew out of that event--the Environmental Protection
      Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act. He also set a
      standard for people in public service to care about the environment
      and to try to do something about it. And I think that the Vice
      President would want me to say that young people like Al Gore, back
      in 1970, realized, because of Gaylord Nelson, that if they got into
      public service, they could do something to preserve our environment
      for future generations.

      In the 1970s, when a river was so polluted it actually caught on
      fire, Gaylord Nelson spoke up. He insisted that Americans deserved
      the safety that comes from knowing the world we live in does not
      make us sick. He warned that our leaders should not let partisan
      politics divert us from responsibility to our shared environment. He
      inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural
      resources is the stewardship of the American Dream. He is the worthy
      heir of the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and the Vice President's
      work and that of all other environmentalist today is the worthy heir
      of Gaylord Nelson.


      June 4, 1916 Gaylord Nelson born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin.

      1942 graduates from University of Wisconsin Law School and enlists
      in the U.S. Army

      1946 Defeated in first try for elected office

      1947 marries Carrie Lee Dotson and begins law practice in Madison,

      1948 elected to Wisconsin Senate

      1958 elected governor of Wisconsin

      1962 elected to U.S. Senate

      March 25, 1963 delivers his first Senate speech--it was on the

      October, 1963 Conservation Tour with President Kennedy

      April 22, 1970 the first Earth Day is held

      1980 defeated for re-election, becomes director of the Wilderness
      Society April 22, 1995 serves as honorary chair, Earth Day 1995

      September,1995 Received Presidential Medal of Freedom Award

      Books by Gaylord Nelson

      America's Last Chance. 1970 What are me and you gonna do? Children's
      letters to Senator Gaylord Nelson about the Environment.

      Further Reading About Gaylord Nelson

      Gaylord Nelson: A Day for the Earth, by Jeffrey Shulman and Teresa
      Rogers, Twenty-First Century Books. 1992
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