Remembering the Father of Earth Day

Article by R.J. Villa
Photo by Slinky

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970 by 20 million Americans from all walks of life. Each and every one should be credited with forcing our politicians to take a look at issues that concern not only our nation, but humanity’s long term sustainability on this planet. Across a couple thousand college and university campuses nationwide, the American people came together for protests and demonstrations. Even Congress got involved and only allowed so many members to address the crowds and speak directly to the people. Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date were passed by 42 legislatures. The actions of these Americans finally brought into focus the growing environmental problems that we were creating in this world. None of this would have been possible if it had not been for the efforts and passion of the late Senator Gaylord Nelson.

“As the father of Earth Day, he inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural resources is the stewardship of the American Dream,” said President William Jefferson Clinton, when he presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Senator Nelson in 1995. President Clinton referred to Senator Nelson as “the worthy heir of the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt.”

Senator Nelson entered politics as a Wisconsin state senator in 1948, representing Dane County; he held that office for 10 years. Well before the first Earth Day, Senator Nelson was taking steps to protect the environment. In 1961, he used a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program, which allowed Wisconsin to buy hundreds of thousands of acres of open space, parkland and wetlands. He is also credited for being involved with the legislation that banned the insecticide DDT, doing damage control with strip mining, creating a national hiking system, establishing automobile fuel efficiency standards, and preserving the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.

“We need a comprehensive and nationwide program to save the national resources of America,” proclaimed Senator Nelson, when he delivered his first Senate speech on March 25, 1963. He drew focus to the declining condition of the nation’s air and water. “Our soil, our water, and our air are becoming more polluted every day. Our most priceless natural resources – trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats, and scenic landscapes – are being destroyed.” The Wilderness Act of 1964, which permanently safeguarded millions of acres of federal land, can be credited to the involvement of Senator Nelson and surrounding lawmakers. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 came through his work with President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. He was also responsible for the Department of Interior’s move to establish national scenic lakeshores and seashores.

It was the summer of 1969, when Senator Nelson’s vision to bring the environment to the nation’s political agenda all came together. Having observed the energy and passion surrounding the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that spread to college and university campuses nationwide, Senator Nelson had the idea of creating a grassroots movement to draw focus on the glaring environmental issues that the government had been ignoring. We could no longer turn a blind eye to all that has been happening to our planet and environment.

“All across the country, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment,” recalled Senator Nelson. “I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda.

It was a big gamble, but worth a try. At a conference in Seattle in September of 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air, and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”

As Earth Day events pushed the environmental agenda upon Washington, D.C., politicians finally started recognizing the importance of environmental sustainability. The actions of Senator Nelson and the voices of the American people led to the passing of a number of important pieces of environmental legislation. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act were all passed in the 1970s.

The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Milhouse Nixon in December of 1970 is another major achievement that sprung from the efforts of Senator Nelson and Earth Day. Prior to the EPA’s existence, the EPA website mentions that “the federal government was not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants that harm human health and degrade the environment.” Today, the EPA stands as our watchdog, protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment – air, water, and land.

“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” Senator Smith recalled. “We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day – it organized itself.”

After losing his senate seat in 1980, he continued to work with the Wilderness Society as a counselor until he passed away in the summer of 2005 from cardiovascular failure. He was 89 years young and died at his home in Kensington, Maryland with his wife Carrie Lee Nelson at his side. His final resting place is in Clear Lake, Wisconsin.

Today, an excess of more than a billion people now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance on the planet. Earth Day ultimately launched the modern environmental movement that continues in this country today through organizations such as Common Cause, Earth Day Network, and the Wilderness Society. These organizations continue to carry the torch for our environmental sustainability.

Common Cause
1133 19th St., N.W., 9th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036

Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process, and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Common Cause serves as an independent voice for change and a watchdog against corruption and abuse of power. Today, Common Cause is one of the most active, effective, and respected nonprofit organizations working for political change in America by empowering members, supporters and the general public to take action on critical policy issues.

Earth Day Network
1616 P St., N.W., Suite 340
Washington, D.C. 20036

Earth Day Network works with over 22,000 partners in 192 countries to broaden, diversify and mobilize the environmental movement. Earth Day Network’s activities inform and energize populations, so they will act to secure a healthy future for themselves and their children through actions such as greening deteriorated schools, creating green jobs and investments, and promoting activism to stop air and water pollution – ultimately promoting green economic policies at home and abroad. With its partner organizations, Earth Day Network provides civic engagement opportunities at the local, state, national and global levels.

Wilderness Society
1615 M St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036

The Wilderness Society is the leading American conservation organization working to protect our nation’s public lands – the 635 million acres collectively owned by the American people and managed by our government. Founded in 1935, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect areas designated as wilderness, measuring nearly 110 million acres across 44 states. The Wilderness Society has more than 500,000 active members and supporters, and continues its vital mission to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for all of our wild environments. For questions about donations or membership, please call 800-THE-WILD (800-843-9453).

Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20460

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established on December 2, 1970, under President Richard Milhouse Nixon. EPA was established to consolidate in one agency a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection. The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment – air, water, and land. For more than 30 years, the EPA has been working for a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people. From regulating auto emissions to banning the use of DDT; from cleaning up toxic waste to protecting the ozone layer; from increasing recycling to revitalizing inner-city brown fields, EPA’s achievements have resulted in cleaner air, purer water, and better protected land.

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