Nelson, Gaylord, 1916-2005 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Nelson, Gaylord, 1916-2005

Founder of Earth Day

Nelson, Gaylord, 1916-2005 | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Gaylord Nelson, WHI 2844.

Gaylord Nelson, 1963

Portrait of Gaylord Nelson. View the original source document: WHI 2844

The sponsor of several significant environmental bills, Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005) is best known as the founder of Earth Day. Gaylord Anton Nelson was born June 4, 1916, in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. He received a bachelor's degree from San Jose State College in 1939 and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1942.

After four years in the Army during World War II, Nelson returned to Wisconsin where he ran as a progressive Republican for the state legislature in 1946, losing his first race. In 1948 he ran again, this time for the state Senate and as a Democrat. Nelson won and served 10 years before being elected governor in 1958. In 1961 Nelson created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program, a bold plan to expand state-protected parks and wetlands that was financed through a penny tax on packs of cigarettes.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, Nelson gained an appointment to the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, allowing him to pursue his interests in natural resource conservation. He authored legislation to preserve the Appalachian Trail and to create a national hiking trail system, while sponsoring or co-sponsoring other conservation bills, including the Wilderness Act and the Alaska Lands Act. In Wisconsin, Nelson won protection for the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He also introduced the first legislation to ban DDT in 1965. Additionally, Nelson advocated for consumer protections, particularly on prescription drugs, and was one of only three Senators to vote against appropriations that launched the ground war in Vietnam.

In 1969 Nelson came up with an idea that would become his lasting legacy. Borrowing a tactic of the anti-Vietnam war protests, the teach-in, Nelson suggested a full day dedicated to teaching and learning about the environment. Nelson believed that if people only knew more about the environment, they would demand better protection. His efforts led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Unexpectedly defeated in 1980, Nelson continued to fight for environmental protection, becoming a counselor to The Wilderness Society in 1981. Nelson was involved in a range of land preservation issues, including the elimination of logging subsidies and the expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System. In 1995 Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and served as the honorary chair of Earth Day. In 2002 the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was named in his honor. Nelson died on July 3, 2005.

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