A Wisconsin native, Gaylord Nelson returned to his home state to pursue a career in politics after attending law school and serving in World War II. In 1948 Nelson began serving in the Wisconsin state senate, followed by his election to governor ten years later. During his leadership of the state, he focused on what he felt was an important but frequently overlooked issue – the environment. Earning him the nickname, “The Conservation Governor”, Nelson worked to preserve his state’s natural resources and wild areas.
Nelson’s cause took on a wider scope with his move to the United States Senate in 1962. Continuing the work he began as Wisconsin governor, Nelson sponsored such legislation as the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and fought for pollution controls and the eradication of the chemicals DDT and Agent Orange.
Despite his wins in Congress, Nelson felt frustrated by his fellow legislators’ lack of concern for environmental issues. Inspired by peaceful Vietnam protests, Nelson called for a national environmental “teach-in” to be held on college campuses throughout the country. His hope was that by rallying public support he would impress upon his fellow lawmakers the importance of environmental legislation.
Schools, organizations, media outlets and individuals responded with unprecedented interest. Nelson welcomed the participation of local organizations and grassroots movements across the country. Culminating on April 22, 1970, fifteen hundred colleges, ten thousand schools and an estimated twenty million people participated in some type of Earth Day celebration.
The public’s interest in environmental issues could no longer be ignored by Washington. Several months after the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, followed by numerous environmental laws in the decade that followed, including the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act.
After three terms in the United States Senate, Nelson joined the nonprofit Wilderness Society where he continued his work for environmental advocacy until his death in 2005.
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