As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I remember my dear friend and "Father of Earth Day," Gaylord Nelson. Gaylord was not just an environmental advocate or U.S. Governor and Senator — he was a game-changer who inspired a nation and thrust the environmental movement into a legacy of lasting achievements and activism. The Wilderness Society takes a special interest in this particular anniversary because when Gaylord left the Senate in 1981 he joined our staff, and was a counselor until his death in 2005.
Today, as the country continues to struggle to shake its fossil fuel addiction, it is significant that Gaylord was moved to initiate a nation-wide environmental movement after visiting a major oil spill off the California coast. What began as a speech in Seattle ended with a 20-million-person-strong national "sit-in" on April 22, 1970. American Heritage magazine called it, "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy." Gaylord chose April 22nd as Earth Day because it fell in the heart of schools' spring break vacations and final exams. This is a time when young people and their families should explore all that America's wilderness has to offer.
"Earth Day changed the course of American history in many significant ways, and in ways that Papa could have never anticipated...It certainly was successful wildly beyond his dreams."
— Tia Nelson, daughter of Gaylord Nelson
The first Earth Day was followed by a decade of monumental environmental safeguards from the Clean Air Act to the Environmental Protection Act, from the Clean Water Act to the Safe Drinking Water Act. And pivotal to the work we do here at The Wilderness Society, Senator Nelson was a co-sponsor of the Wilderness Act, which made possible a system that now permanently protects nearly 110 million acres of our treasured public lands.
Not surprisingly, wilderness protection remains a top priority for all of us at The Wilderness Society. Americans don't just find solace and peace in wilderness; they can also find solutions. Our forests store carbon, one of the main greenhouse gases, and by protecting wilderness, we can mitigate the effects of climate change. Communities across the country are finding that when they take steps to protect areas from the effects of climate change, this work can protect and create American jobs on American lands.
I am fortunate enough to be spending this Earth Day working with another environmental game-changer, Gaylord's daughter Tia. She once said, "Earth Day changed the course of American history in many significant ways, and in ways that Papa could have never anticipated...It certainly was successful wildly beyond his dreams."
Gaylord strove to connect Americans with their wild lands. The "Father of Earth Day" spent his life doing everything he could to protect the national forests, national parks, and the other lands that belong to all Americans. He worked tirelessly to make sure his grandchildren would have the wilderness to enjoy, and now we need to pay it forward for future generations.
A version of this article also appeared in Huffington Post.