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A tribute to Gaylord Nelson

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The Man Who Invented Earth Day

American Heritage magazine called the original Earth Day in 1970 "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy....American politics and public policy would never be the same again." This "remarkable happening" sprang from the mind of Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and for the past 19 years counselor of The Wilderness Society. "In the 1960's," he recalls, "you could count on one hand the number of U.S. Senators who called themselves 'environmentalists.' The environment simply was not on the agenda."

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"One day in 1969 while flying from Southern California to Berkeley, I read a magazine article about college 'teach-ins' to mobilize opposition to the Vietnam War. It occurred to me that a similar approach might produce what I felt we needed: a nationwide grassroots demonstration of concern for the environment - a demonstration big enough to shake up the political establishment." He announded this proposal in a speech in Seattle that fall, and the public response exceeded his wildes expectations. On April 22, 1970, some 20 million Americans turned out for a wide range of events.

Nelson's appreciation of the natural world began in Clear Lake, in rural northwestern Wisconsin. During two terms as governor 40 years ago, he championed conservation. One first-of-its-kind program used a penny-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund acquisition of parkland. His 18-year Senate career included early opposition to the war in Vietnam, groundbreaking work on prescription drug safety, and of course, leadership in environmental protection. Among the many honors Nelson has received is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

At the age of 83, Nelson continues to work full-time, focusing on issues involving wilderness, sustainable resource use, and U.S. population growth. In fact, he is usually one of the first to arrive in the morning. "Few men or women will leave a legacy equal to Gaylord's," says former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers (D-AR). "He has consistently demonstrated concern not for the politically popular, but for the future, the next generation, and the one after that."

Like its creator, Earth Day has had remarkable staying power. "I certainly would never have predicted that three decades later we would still be making Earth Day every April and that it would have become an international event," he says. On Saturday, April 22, Nelson will be on the National Mall speaking to the hundred of thousands expected to attend. "The focus of this anniversary will be clean energy," notes Nelson, "and one fo the main points we want to make is that a healthy environment and a strong econmy go hand-in-hand."


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