More than four decades after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, some one billion people in 192 countries still participate in the annual global teach-in for our planet.
Although he always maintained that the initial day of education, tree planting, and outdoor clean-up organized itself, Polk County native Gaylord Nelson LLB’42 was Earth Day’s undisputed founder.
Born in 1916 in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, to parents who supported progressive politics, Nelson quickly moved up the political ladder after earning a law degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison: first a state senator, then a two-term Wisconsin governor, and then a U.S. senator for 18 years.
He never tired of telling stories about growing up in a small town, but Nelson’s point of view reached far beyond his childhood home.
“Our air, water, soil, forests, oceans, rivers, lakes, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, minerals — that is the wealth of the country.”
He cared deeply about planet Earth and its long-term well-being. But despite successfully sponsoring the Wilderness Act of 1964 to preserve federal lands, he had trouble convincing his fellow senators to heed his continual wake-up calls about environmental concerns. Then came the first Earth Day, a grassroots teach-in that engaged some 20 million Americans of all ages. The response, Nelson said, meant, “Holy cow, people care about this.” Congress noticed, and soon it entered into a decade of sweeping environmental legislation to protect the country’s water, air, natural areas, and more.
Nelson argued that the world’s problems are interconnected and that policies to protect the planet need not supersede other major problems. “Our air, water, soil, forests, oceans, rivers, lakes, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, minerals — that is the wealth of the country,” he said.
Nelson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. A research institute at UW–Madison and a wilderness area in northern Wisconsin are named in his honor. He died at age 89 in 2005.
Thank you, Polk County, for Gaylord Nelson — and for all those who protect the planet we call home.