top of page

Gaylord Nelson (Part 2)

Gaylord Nelson

The Extraordinary Environmentalist

Part 2 of 2

By Muriel Nelson

Gaylord Nelson was an environmentalist all  his life. Perhaps the first sign of his nature-focused activism was during his pre-teen years when he approached the village board to plant trees along the main street, now known as Third Avenue. The street and its buildings might look a bit different today, had the board taken up his idea. 

During his political career, Gaylord developed a strong agenda for environmental action. As Wisconsin’s Governor (1959-63), he created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program; it funded the purchase of one million acres of land for parks in Wisconsin. This accomplishment, among others, earned him national fame and the title, “Conservation Governor”. 

His dedication to the environment continued during his years as a U.S. Senator (1963-1981). Events were occurring in the U.S. that made our nation increasingly sensitive to the need for environmental change. Probably most noteworthy was a disastrous oil spill off the California Coast in January 1969. More than 3 million gallons of toxic black oil leaked from an offshore oil rig into the ocean water. It killed more than 10,000 birds and unknown numbers of fish, dolphins, sea lions and other aquatic life. Images of the oily black tar coating the beaches and wildlife made both national and global news. 

Nelson witnessed the oil spill and its effects first-hand. As he left California, it’s reported he read a magazine article about teach-ins being held at colleges and universities to increase interest against the Vietnam War. This was his “Eureka Moment” as he envisioned an environmental teach-in day for students of all ages across the country. He announced his idea during a speech the next day in Seattle. As he was noted to remark later, “the idea took off like gangbusters” and his Washington, D.C. office became overwhelmed with inquiries. It wasn’t long before the Senator established a non-profit organization to manage the teach-in event that was appropriately re-named “Earth Day”. 

The first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970, was a phenomenal success. Moe than 20 million people in the United States participated in teach-ins, parades and other demonstrations of concern and support for the environment. The American Heritage Magazine later pegged it as "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy…..American politics and public policy would never be the same again". The magazine was prophetic!

The original Earth Day was the start of an annual celebration not only in the U.S., but around the world. Within 20 years, 200 million people from 149 countries commemorated Earth Day. Today, almost 55 years since its first observance, support and interest continue to grow.

Senator Nelson spent the next eleven years supporting Earth Day and shepherding many environmental bills and amendments through Congress. There was no time previously in U.S. history, or since, that so many environmentally focused laws were enacted. Among the more than 30 bills and amendments between 1970 and 1985 were the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Endangered American Wilderness Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. He worked to remove lead from gasoline and to regulate vehicle emissions. Nelson was also instrumental in the ban of the harmful pesticide DDT. Once again, he became known as the protector of the environment.

In 1981, he lost his U.S. Senate seat. However, Gaylord continued his relentless drive to protect and preserve our planet; he accepted the Wilderness Society’s chairmanship and later, its counselor position. These were ideal jobs for Nelson because he was recognized as the nation’s prominent spokesman on environmental issues. For more than 20 years, Gaylord traveled across the country, giving speeches, and taking on other activities to educate and remind people that we must not take our earth and its resources for granted. 

Gaylord Nelson’s Legacy

Gaylord’s social and political legacy is more far reaching than most. His lifelong accomplishments were recognized in 1995 when he was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award possible, for his dedicated work and accomplishments to preserve the environment.

Nelson’s environmental activism usually overshadows his remarkable reputation of conduct and ethics that were above reproach. Throughout his political career, he was recognized for his honesty by both Republicans and fellow Democrats. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t take on lively debates. However, once a heated argument concluded, Nelson held respect and not a grudge for his opponent. He continued to work together with his contenders on and off Capitol Hill. Equally important, he didn’t try to use his senate seat for personal gain. He lived a modest life and didn’t drive a “fancy car”; for many years he traveled the streets of the U.S. Capitol in his old Wisconsin-made Nash sedan.

He is probably best known for establishing Earth Day. Today, Earth Day is observed not only in Clear Lake but in communities in at least 193 countries world-wide. Ecological behaviors have become common for almost everyone. For instance, just consider our instilled habits for recycling and for doing our part to preserve our clean water supply.

There are several places that honor Nelson. One is the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in recognition of his love of nature. In addition, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was named after him. The Governor Nelson State Park, just outside Madison on the north shore of Lake Mendota, is also named for the late “Conservation Governor”. Not to be overlooked are the Clear Lake Gaylord A. Nelson Education Center and the Gaylord Nelson Highway (better known as USH 63, that stretches from the Mississippi River at the MN-WI state border to Ashland WI);  both are named to honor the renowned native son of Clear Lake. 

Gaylord Nelson died July 3, 2005, in Kensington, MD. He is buried in the Clear Lake Cemetery with his wife Carrie Lee now at his side. His children, Gaylord Jr. (Happy), Jeffrey, and Cynthia (Tia) are still living. Tia says her father’s greatest gift to his children was the belief that everyone makes a difference. With this philosophy in mind, she follows her father’s path and remains devoted to addressing climate control issues. 

Nelson left a lasting legacy that continues to inspire our commitment to save the planet. As this man from Clear Lake, an environmental activist, and former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator, was heard to say, “ [That’s] not bad for a guy from Polk County”.

Special recognition goes to Chuck Clark, another “hometown boy”, for the information and reference material he provided about his good friend, Gaylord Nelson.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page