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Rest in Peace: Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day
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by Warren Anderson

A biography of Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day Founder

Frustrated by the nation's political leaders' failure to take action against environmental degradation, Nelson came to Washington to wake up the politicos and frame the decline of our natural world as a critical priority. In his very first in his first Senate speech on March 25, 1963, Nelson rang the clarion's bell:

"We need a comprehensive and nationwide program to save the natural resources of America. Our soil, our water, and our air are becoming more polluted every day. Our most priceless natural resources - trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats, scenic landscapes - are being destroyed."

That same year, as a freshman Senator, Nelson convinced President Kennedy to undertake a five-day, 11-state tour to extol the benefits of conservation in order to put environmentalism on the national agenda. In 1963 none of the national newspapers had environmental reporters. There was no Environmental Protection Agency. There was no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act, no Endangered Species Act. Polluters and chemical industrialists were ravaging our country.

In an 8/29/63 memo to JFK, Nelson wrote:
"The question is how to maximize the effect - how to hit the issue hard enough to leave a permanent impression after the headlines have faded away - how to shake people, organizations and legislators hard enough to gain strong approval for a comprehensive national, state and local long-range plan for our resources.

Though the public is dimly aware that all around them here and there, outdoor assets are disappearing, they really don't see the awful dimension of the catastrophe. The real failure has been in political leadership. This is a political issue to be settled at the political level, but strangely politicians seldom talk about it."

Yes, things were dismal. And then came Rachel Carson (Silent Spring was published in 1962) and Gaylord Nelson. Thank God for them.

Gaylord Nelson was a delightful human being who was admired and loved by his colleagues in the United States Senate; in fact, he was acknowledged to be the most popular figure in the Senate. He and his wife, Carrie Lee, for years hosted assorted leaders in their home for dinner, drinks and spirited conversation. Using his considerable persuasiveness, his genial character, and his moral environmental vision, it took only 7 years - an eye-blink in congressional time - for Gaylord Nelson to accomplish his objective, to make environmental issues a lead role in the nation's political agenda. His first Congressional speech was in 1963 - his Earth Day was in 1970.

~ Part Two ~

In the summer of 1969 Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin visited an oil spill site in Santa Barbara, California.  On his return flight he read an article about various “teach-ins” on college campuses dealing with Vietnam.  “It popped into my head. That’s it! Why not have an environmental teach-in and get everyone involved?”

Senator Nelson returned to Washington and formed a non-profit – Environmental Teach-In, Inc. – and recruited a few Republicans and conservationists to help in the project.  On September 20, 1969 he made his mission public in Seattle:

“I am convinced that the same concern the youth of this nation took in changing this nation’s priorities on the war in Vietnam and on civil rights can be shown for the problems of the environment. Young people can take the leadership away from the indifferent, venal men who are concerned with progress and profit for the sake of progress and profit alone…”

Senator Nelson’s announcement prompted a national wire service story and his office was soon flooded with calls and letters of those wanting to get involved. He hired a Harvard graduate student, Denis Hayes, who left school to coordinate the event. The first headquarters for the project was a grungy, small office located over a Chinese restaurant on P Street.  Hayes recruited activists from around the country who worked long hours with little or no pay.  Nelson believed this mission could unify all segments of the country and he sought the energy and passion of young people to carry it through.

They decided on the name “Earth Day” after considering a number of others like Environment Day and Ecology Day. Nelson chose the date to maximize participation on college campuses. The week of April 19 – 25 did not fall during exams or spring break and did not conflict with Easter or Passover. It was late enough to ensure good weather. During the middle of the week there would be more students in class and no competition from other events – so Wednesday, April 22, 1970 was anointed as the target day.  When critics later pointed out it was Lenin’s birthday, Nelson replied that it was also the birthday both of St. Francis of Assi, the nature saint, and his Aunt Tillie.

Nelson wrote to every governor and 200 mayors, asking them to issue Earth Day proclamations. Eventually, the mailing list reached 60,000. A full page ad in the New York Times on January 18, 1970 introduced “Earth Day” to the American vocabulary:

A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.

Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense. It is a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs. It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living. April 22 seeks a future.

On April 22, 1970 our country was mesmerized by the outpouring of the response to this watershed event. Barry Goldwater spoke in Long Island, Ted Kennedy at Yale.  20 million Americans participated. College campuses around the continent held well-attended events and protests. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions. The NY Times said: “It was Earth Day, and like Mother’s Day, no man in public office could be against it.”  John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s henchman, sent FBI agents to monitor events in Washington and 3 other cities looking for “the involvement of radical groups in the ecology movement” according to FBI files.

Gaylord Nelson spoke at several venues on April 22, 1970. In Denver, he said that Earth Day indicated “a new national coalition whose objective is to put quality of human life on a par with Gross National Product as an aim of this society. Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new American concern that cuts across generations and ideologies.”

In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event. He inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural resources is the stewardship of the American dream.”

~Part Three~

Wednesday, April 2, 1970 changed the world. It was the first Earth Day. Led by Senator Nelson, during the decade of 1970 to 1980 a bipartisan Congress passed 28 major environmental laws. In his 1970 State of the Union speech Richard Nixon predicted that "the environment may well become the major concern of the American people in the decade of the '70s." Three days earlier, Senator Nelson had given a stirring speech on the Senate floor:

"American has bought environmental disaster on the installment plan: Buy affluence now and let future generations pay the price." He called for a new set of values, a new ecological ethic "to put gross national quality above gross national product."

The Environmental Protection Agency was created in December of 1970, its first director: William Ruckelshaus. The National Environmental Policy Act was enacted in 1970 as was the Clean Air Act.  Ruckelshaus ordered a ban on DDT in 1972, the year the Clean Water Act became law -- over Nixon's veto.

The League of Conservation Voters formed in 1970 and gave Senator Nelson perfect scores.

In 1973 Arab oil producing countries, incensed with the United States for aiding Israel in the Yom Kippur War, cut off oil exports to America. Fuel prices shot through the roof, lines formed at gas stations, and Nixon reduced the nation's speed limit to 55 mph. The energy crisis helped Nixon explain his veto of a bill to establish federal regulations on strip mining. Being oil dependent on unstable Middle Eastern regimes used by a Republican President to thwart American environmental protection -- who could imagine that?

Of course, the environmental decade ended with the election of Ronald Reagan, who installed the notorious James Watt as secretary of the Interior. Perhaps worst of all, Gaylord Nelson was among those swept out of office by the Reagan landslide -- during the campaign his opponent claimed Nelson was "not relevant" for the 1980s.

Gaylord Nelson had hoped to legislate requirements for clean automobile engines, phosphorous-free detergents, ban toxic pesticides, eliminate nonreturnable bottles and cans, require antipollution devices on jet aircraft engines, create a federal environmental advocacy agency, ban the dumping of waste into the ocean and the Great Lakes, control  strip mining, halt the drilling of oil in the ocean, establish a national environmental education program, a national public transportation program, and a national land use policy.

Irrelevant? No, prophetic. We can only imagine if, during the next decade, our environmental policies could have continued to be established by Gaylord Nelson rather than the likes of James Watts.

President Clinton awarded Gaylord Nelson the Presidential Medal of  Freedom in 1995. Nelson died on July 3, 2005. May he rest in peace as a great American hero.

Note: There is a fabulous book on Senator Nelson entitled The Man From Clear Lake, by Bill Christofferson.


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