Earth Day's birth: New web site tells the tale of Earth Day

EPA Administrator William K. Reilly with former Senator Gaylord Nelson on Earth Day 1990. Courtesy EPA History Office.

Just in time for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (this April 22), a new Web site offers an unprecedented look at the inspiring history behind Earth Day and its father, the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Scholars, teachers and armchair historians will delight at Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement.

The Earth Day site offers an incredibly well-documented journey through Nelson’s quest to use the anti-Vietnam war ‘teach-ins’ as a model for Earth Day and a national environmental awakening.

A joint project of the Nelson Institute and the Wisconsin Historical Society, the site includes more than 500 original documents, photos, video and audio clips from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s extensive Gaylord Nelson archives.

Among the archival gems the site displays and interprets are scans of original letters and newspaper stories; original campus fliers for Earth Day events; video of Nelson speeches and interviews, such as the speech aired on Milwaukee Public Television on the eve of the first Earth Day; and other rare documents, including the transcript of Walter Cronkite’s 1970 CBS Evening News Earth Day special.

Nelson was the counselor of The Wilderness Society after he left the Senate in 1981, and the Web site includes numerous archival documents from his quarter century with us. Among those treasures are a letter to the editor to The New York Times in which Nelson challenges the news media’s portrayal of jobs and environmental protection as mutually exclusive.

More on Earth Day at the Wilderness Society

According to the site, the expanded public access to these rare archives falls right in line with Nelson’s ethic that environmental information should be freely accessible to the public.

In the end, Nelson’s simple Earth Day idea resulted in the largest demonstration in U.S. history and one of the most powerful and enduring legacies of the time.

The Nelson Institute will mark the 40th anniversary April 20-21 at Madison’s Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center with Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and author Margaret Atwood as guest speakers. Find more information here.

photo: EPA Administrator William K. Reilly with former Senator Gaylord Nelson on Earth Day 1990. Courtesy EPA History Office.