Gaylord Nelson

​Earth Day Founder, Champion for Change

Gaylord Nelson LLB1942 led the movement for environmental stewardship and education long before words such as green or sustainable were in fashion. The founder of Earth Day and one of Wisconsin’s most influential citizens, he was also a tireless advocate for social justice and civil rights.
Born in Clear Lake, Nelson was inspired by the natural beauty of his northern Wisconsin hometown and by his father’s interest in progressive politics. He earned his law degree at the University of Wisconsin and fought in World War II before serving first as a state senator and then, from 1959 until 1963, as “Wisconsin’s Conservation Governor.”

Nelson secured unprecedented state funding for education, transportation and health care, and he set new standards for conservation planning by preserving space for parks and wildlife areas. The $50 million Outdoor Recreation Action Program was his signature achievement, protecting one million acres for parks, fish and game preserves and youth conservation camps. He extended the Wisconsin Idea to sustainability, putting two dozen UW faculty members to work in resource development.

From The Park

The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity … That’s the whole economy.​

Source: ​“Where Do We Go from Here?” (Speech on 25th anniversary of Earth Day)

As a U.S. senator from 1962 until 1980, Nelson diligently championed civil rights, government ethics, product safety and tax reform, and spoke out against the Vietnam War. He also crafted historic environmental protection legislation, creating the national hiking-trails system and preserving the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail System. He drafted the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Education Act, fuel efficiency standards, and bans on DDT and Agent Orange.

Still, Nelson struggled to interest colleagues in what he considered urgent threats to the environment. Inspired by campus activists, he called for a teach-in to put power in the hands of Americans. Some 20 million people participated in the inaugural Earth Day on April 22, 1970, later described as “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”

Nelson’s legacy lives on in government and grassroots efforts across the country. In 2002, the UW renamed its environmental research center the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He’s also the namesake of a state park a few miles outside of Madison and an Apostle Islands wilderness area.

Gaylord Nelson recalls his days at UW-Madison as he accepts the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Distinguished Service Award in this speech to the Benchers Society on March 31, 2000. From Gargoyle Magazine, Summer 2000. An excerpt:

“In 1939, there were still left a few old fashioned, give-em-hell, rough and tumble, no-holds-barred newspaper editors and a good collection of colorful, creative, self-made politicians mixed in with the practical political operatives who made the system work without the kind of divisive, partisan, ideological disharmony that pervades the system today. Republicans, Democrats, Progressives actually socialized as friendly adversaries. They did not consider one another as enemies.”