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Gaylord Nelson  (Photo by Fritz Albert)

Earth Day at 50: Gaylord Nelson’s Legacy


by Bill Christofferson


Earth Day, founded by Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson, celebrates its 50th birthday on April 22. 


When Nelson, then a U.S. Senator, proposed an “environmental teach-in” to raise public awareness about environmental issues, he could not have imagined the response it would engender. Twenty million people – then 10 percent of the US population – participated in the first Earth Day in 1970.


Earth Day has since become institutionalized.  Part of the genius of Nelson’s idea was that it took root in the schools, where millions of students at all levels learn about environmental issues during Earth Week.





It has become an international event.  More than one billion people participate in Earth Day activities, according to the Earth Day Network, making it the largest secular civic event in the world.


That’s part of Gaylord Nelson’s legacy.  So are the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the St.Croix wild and scenic river, a million acres of outdoor recreational land, scenic and endangered land, and wildlife habitat preserved in Wisconsin.   

But the most important, lasting treasure of Earth Day, is the environmental education it inspired in a generation of young people. It’s what Aldo Leopold called a land ethic, and what Nelson called an environmental ethic.

An environmental ethic, Nelson said, “causes society to always ask the question: ‘If we intrude on this work of nature, what will the consequences be?”


In visits to grade schools in the 1990s, he found young people well-informed on environmental issues.  Nelson told of a fifth grade girl in Florida, who proudly told him that when her mother brought home a can of tuna that did not have the label declaring it “dolphin safe” – an indication that show proper care and procedures were followed to minimize dolphins being killed during fishing for tuna – she insisted that they return to the grocery store and exchange it for one with a “dolphin safe” label.


“This is the evolution of an ethic,” he said. “That’s the heart of the matter.”


Nelson was a visionary who spent his life working to put environmental awareness on the nation’s political agenda, and could point to remarkable progress in his lifetime.  But he was not one to rest on his laurels. Nelson, who left the Senate in 1981, continued to go to his office in the Wilderness Society until shortly before his death in 2005.  Why, he was asked, did he continue to show up for work every morning at age 89?

"Our work's not finished," he said. "There's a lot more to be done."

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Bill Christofferson is the author of Nelson’s biography, “The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press.  He and his wife, Karin Borgh, are NEWLT members with land in a conservation easement in Waupaca County.

They live in Milwaukee. 

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