Biography of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

Gaylord Nelson Put the Environment on the National Agenda

gaylord nelson
Sen. Gaylord Nelson. University of Wisconsin

There aren't many politicians who can claim to be true environmentalists, with one outstanding exception: Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin. Though his name is well known in his home state for his many accomplishments, elsewhere he's known simply as the founder of Earth Day. How did Nelson's life inform his environmental convictions?

The Early Life of Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Anton Nelson was born July 12, 1916, in the small town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. The Nelsons were a comfortable, middle-class family and were well-known in regional politics; Nelson's great-grandfather was a founder of Wisconsin's Republican party, and political discussions were a regular feature of family gatherings.

Nelson's early interest in politics was sparked at age eight when his father took Gaylord to see Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFolette -- the leader of the Progressive Party -- speak from the back of a train. When asked by his father if he wanted to become a politician, Gaylord supposedly responded, "Yes, but I'm afraid by the time I grow up Bob LaFollete would have settled all the problems and there'll be nothing for me to do."

An early glimmering of Nelson's interest in environmental politics occurred at age 14 when he organized a campaign to plant trees along the roads leading into Clear Lake. His campaign was defeated, teaching Nelson a valuable lesson in the importance of political negotiations.

Nelson's Political Career

After graduating from San Jose State University in California, Nelson earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. World War II was raging throughout Europe and the Pacific, so Nelson joined the U.S. Army and was awarded the rank of lieutenant. His unit, made up of segregated African-American soldiers, saw action in the battles around Okinawa.

Upon his return to the United States, Nelson ran for the Wisconsin State Senate as a Progressive Republican and lost. In 1948, however, he ran for the same seat as a Democrat and won, serving 10 years in the office.

In 1958, Nelson ran for governor and was elected. Shortly before taking office, his aging father reportedly asked him, "So, do you think Bob LaFollete left you enough problems to work on when you'll be governor?"

Nelson distinguished himself as governor by combining economic concerns with environmental issues. "The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around," he declared. After learning that Wisconsin was a popular tourist destination for Chicago residents, Nelson developed an Outdoor Recreation Act Program, imposing a one-penny tax on cigarettes to purchase conservation easements on over a million acres of wilderness land. He also took aggressive action to reduce the water pollution caused by detergents.

Senator Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day

In 1962, Nelson ran for the U.S. Senate and won, bringing his enthusiasm for environmental issues to the national level. Though he also championed such causes as civil rights, the "war on poverty," prescription drug safety, family planning, ending the war in Vietnam and small business growth he is perhaps best known for putting environmental issues on the national agenda.

In 1965, Nelson introduced the first legislation to ban the pesticide DDT. He successfully fought against the use of the deadly defoliant Agent Orange. He supported landmark legislation like the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Without a doubt, Nelson's single greatest contribution to the environmental movement was the creation of Earth Day. Inspired in part by the large number of protests and teach-ins that were occurring worldwide during the 1960s, Nelson proposed in 1969 that there could be a coast-to-coast grassroots demonstration on behalf of environmental concerns -- and in Nelson's words, "The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters."

The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, and was a monumental success, involving an estimated 20 million Americans. In a speech that day, 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, his environment  and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment -- far beyond any effort made before."

Nelson's Final Years

The overwhelming success of Earth Day 1970 made it an annual event that continues to this day. In the years that followed, the Clean Water Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Education Act, the National Hiking Trails and the National Scenic Trails Acts were established, as was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many other federal, state and local programs to protect the environment.

In 1980, Nelson was voted out of office in the Republican stampede that coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan. He remained active in national politics, becoming a counselor for The Wilderness Society for 24 years.

Nelson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1995. Ten years later, he died of congestive heart failure at the age of 89. In addition to Earth Day, Nelson is remembered through the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness and Governor Nelson State Park in Wisconsin.