Gaylord Nelson, 89; Champion of Environment Started Earth Day

Times Staff Writer

Gaylord Nelson, a trend-setting environmentalist who as a Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin founded Earth Day in 1970, died Sunday. He was 89.

Nelson, who was also a former Wisconsin governor, died of cardiovascular failure at his home in Kensington, Md., a suburb of Washington, according to his biographer Bill Christofferson.

In 1995, President Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation’s highest civilian honor. In presenting the award, Clinton called Nelson “the father of Earth Day” and the grandfather of the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.


Earth Day, which now is celebrated annually on April 22, immediately took hold in the 1970s within a country that was alarmed by such environmental debacles as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the spontaneous combustion of the oil-slicked Cuyahoga River in Ohio that same year and the widespread poisoning of birds by the use of the pesticide DDT.

An estimated 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day, including 10,000 schools, 2,000 colleges and a thousand communities. Taken aback by public enthusiasm during the buildup to the event, members of Congress reacted by participating in Earth Day events in such great numbers that the House and Senate had to be adjourned for the day.

“It organized itself,” Nelson wrote years later in “Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise “(2002), written with Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak.

“The American people finally had a forum for expressing their concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air -- and they did so with tremendous exuberance.”

In Southern California, students led the way, staging events at numerous high schools and at USC, UCLA, Caltech, Cal Poly, UC Irvine and Pasadena City College.

Nelson said that his hopes for a public demonstration “so big it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and force the environmental issue onto the national political agenda” were more than fulfilled.


Following Earth Day, legislation to protect the environment that had been on the backburner for years in Washington was approved by Congress and signed into law by the executive branch, including major strengthening of clean air, clean water, forestry, coastal conservation and land management policies. Within months of the first Earth Day, President Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gaylord Anton Nelson, the son of a country doctor and a registered nurse, was born June 4, 1916, in Clear Lake, a small town in northwestern Wisconsin. His great-grandfather had helped found the Republican Party in Wisconsin.

Nelson earned his degrees from San Jose State College and the University of Wisconsin Law School. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army, seeing action in Okinawa and commanding a company composed of African American soldiers.

After the war, Nelson set up a law practice in Madison, Wis., and married Carrie Lee Dotson, an Army nurse he had met during the war. He then turned his attention to his longtime interest in elective politics.

Around that time, he also met Aldo Leopold, a scientist and conservationist who wrote “A Sand County Almanac,” which outlined a new concept Leopold called “the land ethic” or “ecological conscience.”

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community,” Leopold wrote. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”


“I consider it probably the most impressive and influential environmental book of this [the 20th] century,” Nelson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1999.

Always a liberal, Nelson was originally a member of Wisconsin’s Progressive Republican Party, switching to the Democratic Party in the late 1940s when the Progressives were on the decline. After one failed attempt, he won a seat in the state Senate in 1948, serving for 10 years before being elected Wisconsin governor, a post he held for four years.

By then, he said, he had concluded that the environment was the “most important issue facing us as a society,” but he also saw that the political establishment “was not interested.”

In 1962, at the age of 46, Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate. The following year, he convinced President Kennedy to do an “Earth Tour” to urge people to become involved in environmentalism. But the issue got lost in other pressing matters of the day, including the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Nelson said he came upon the idea of Earth Day in 1969 while in Santa Barbara, where he spoke at a water conference and later went to take a look at the disastrous effects of an oil spill at a Unocal platform off the city’s coast.

The next day, he said, thinking about the many “teach-ins” against the Vietnam War being held on college campuses at the time, “It suddenly dawned on me -- why not a nationwide teach-in on the environment?”


It was, as it turned out, an idea whose time had come. When Nelson got back to Washington, he started gathering support and money to make what soon became known as “Earth Day” a reality. Mayors, governors and students immediately got on board.

By the appointed day, millions of people all over the country were staging events, ranging from mock funerals for the internal combustion engine to demonstrations against polluters, offshore oil drillers, pesticide manufacturers and non-biodegradable detergents.

“It was a big enough demonstration to get the attention of the political establishment and force the issue on the political agenda,” Nelson told Christofferson, who wrote “The Man From Clear Lake,” the 2004 biography of Nelson. “The public was already there, ahead of the politicians.”

As the New York Times’ Nan Robertson wrote, “It was Earth Day, and, like Mother’s Day, no man in public office could be against it.”

Although the next several Earth Days were not as sensational, by the highly publicized 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, “recycling” and “biodegradable” had become common terms in the United States. Worldwide, it was estimated that 200 million people celebrated Earth Day in 136 countries.

Nelson, who was active in environmental issues well into his 80s, took issue with the idea that Earth Day over the years became tepid, saying general knowledge about the issue was “10 or 20 times what it was on Earth Day 1970.” In particular, he said, students were much more aware of the dangers to the environment than their counterparts in earlier years.


During his 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Nelson sponsored or co-sponsored many measures on a wide variety of environmental matters, including gas mileage standards, a ban of the pesticide DDT and the Wilderness Act of 1964, which required federal agencies to save some wild areas from logging and mining.

He also helped preserve the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, create a national hiking trails system and establish the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway, both in Wisconsin.

In 1972, George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president, asked Nelson to run as his vice president.

Nelson declined, however, telling his old friend that he wanted to be able to speak his mind on matters of policy.

McGovern instead picked Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, whom he had to drop when it was disclosed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression. (Sargent Shriver replaced Eagleton on the Democratic ticket.)

Nelson, who was among the first senators to oppose the Vietnam War, left public office in 1980 after Republican Robert W. Kasten Jr., who was running on Ronald Reagan’s coattails, narrowly defeated him. Nelson subsequently became counselor at the Wilderness Society, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group.


William H. Meadows, the group’s president, called Nelson the “founding father of the modern environmental community.”

Besides his wife, Nelson is survived by his sons Gaylord and Jeffrey and his daughter Cynthia.