Gaylord Nelson: Earth Day founder and Wilderness leader

Gaylord Nelson and Earth from space

Adapted from photos courtesy of Wikimedia and Flickr, Royce Bair (digitally enhanced 1972 NASA photo)

Gaylord Nelson is the man who conceived of Earth Day. On April 22, 1970, people across the United States celebrated this day as one of unity and foresight, an event that continues to today. After Nelson's departure from the Senate, he worked with The Wilderness Society until his death in 2005. 

The man

Nelson grew up romping on the shores of Clear Lake in northern Wisconsin, where he saw nature’s beauty and its degradation first-hand. His law studies were interrupted by World War II and when he returned he was elected to the state senate before becoming governor (picture below courtesy of wikimedia).

In 1962, Nelson joined the U.S. Senate, where he contributed to the advancement of the Appalachian Trail, the National Hiking Trail Act, the National Scenic Trails Act, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Wilderness Act, as well as the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Education Act. A true pioneer, Nelson even got funding for green jobs across the country.

The Vision

In 1969, Nelson visited Santa Barbara, California, where a large oil spill had destroyed landscapes. While he was flying back, he read about the “teach-ins” colleges had been conducting to raise attention about the Vietnam War. He wondered if something similar could be done for the environment, and thus Earth Day was born.

It only took a couple months for the idea of a “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” to catch on. Newspapers predicted that its impact would surpass the anti-war demonstrations.

Grassroots support grew rampant, so much so that Nelson firmly declined that would lead the event. Instead, he embraced Americans celebrating “in any way they want.” He did establish an independent non-profit called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. who employed experienced activists to support community efforts. This organization wanted the event to "be more than a day of fruitless talking," and they gave it a new name: Earth Day.

Earth Day was unique in that it brought together groups that had never been unified before: young students, middle-class housewives, scientists, labor unions, churches, white-collar professional groups and politicians of all leanings—from Barry Goldwater to Edward Kennedy.

“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” reflected Gaylord Nelson. “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

An estimated twenty million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 —including 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges and over 1,000 communities (photo above of Clemson University courtesy of U.S. embassy in New Zealand). This drew extensive media attention and ushered in an era of extensive environmental legislation.

The Legend

American Heritage Magazine called the original Earth Day "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."

Nelson worked to plan Earth Week for the following three years because he wanted an annual event that promoted environmental education in schools. He believed that environmental victories required not laws or budgets, but "a new awareness of the ecological bonds between man and his environment." In 1985, his home state Wisconsin became the first state to require environmental education in its elementary and high schools.

Cities and communities have continued to use Earth Day to call attention to environmental concerns every year. In 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day also sought to extend internationally (photo above of Nelson and William K. Reilly courtesy of EPA). An estimated 184 countries held formal Earth Day celebrations in 2000.

On the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, when President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nelson said "there has been a sea change in the degree of environmentally-educated people in our society. They, in the end, will make the difference."


When Nelson left the Senate, he became counselor, board member and spokesperson for The Wilderness Society, and remained so until his death in 2005. He advocated for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Most of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore he helped establish protection for has been designated as Gaylord Nelson Wilderness (photo below courtesy of NPS).

"The opportunity for a gradual but complete break with our destructive environmental history and a new beginning is at hand…. We can measure up to the challenge if we have the will to do so—that is the only question. I am optimistic that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society."


Read Nelson's inaugural Earth Day speech below: