Gaylord A. Nelson, former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator who founded Earth Day and launched a new wave of environmental activism, died today at his home in Kensington, Md.
He was 89 and had been in failing health from cardiovascular failure for several months, his family said. His wife Carrie Lee was with him as he died at 5:10 a.m. today.
Nelson, one of the leading environmentalists of the 20th Century, joined The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. upon leaving the U.S. Senate in 1981. He served first as the organization's chairman and later as counselor, and continued to work there on environmental issues until recent months, when his health declined. He continued to go to the office at age 88, he said, because, "Our work's not done."
Nelson held elective office for 32 years, including two two-year terms as Wisconsin governor (1959-1963) and three terms in the U.S. Senate (1963-1981). He was defeated in his bid for re-election in 1980 by Republican Robert Kasten.
He served 10 years in the Wisconsin State Senate before becoming only the second Democrat to be elected Wisconsin governor in the 20th Century, and the first to be re-elected.
An early voice for conservation and environmental protection, Nelson laid out a far-reaching, comprehensive environmental agenda for the Congress in 1970, and saw much of it became law before he left the Senate in 1981, at the end of what became known as the Environmental Decade of the 1970s. In the 10 years after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, 23 major pieces of environmental legislation became law.
He sponsored, co-sponsored or helped pass dozens of environmental laws aimed at conserving resources and preventing pollution, including the Wilderness Act and bills preserving the Appalachian Trail and establishing a national system of hiking trails. Nelson authored legislation that preserved the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior and designated the St. Croix River, which borders Minnesota and Wisconsin, as a wild and scenic river.
Many of Nelson's ideas were visionary. He fought a long battle to ban hard detergents containing phosphorous, and was the first member of Congress to propose a ban on the pesticide DDT, which took years to accomplish. He once proposed a ban on the internal combustion engine as an amendment to the Clean Air Act, to get the automobile industry's attention, and sponsored a constitutional amendment to guarantee citizens a right to a clean environment.
Nelson established himself as a conservationist, as environmentalists were then called, as Wisconsin governor, winning passage of a landmark program to acquire and preserve open space and recreational land. The $50-million program passed in 1961 was funded by a one-cent per package tax on cigarettes and became a model for other states. The program continues today as the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
Nelson's goal as a U.S. senator was to elevate environmental issues and make them a permanent part of the nation's political agenda.
He persuaded President John F. Kennedy to make a national tour to discuss conservation in 1963, hoping that would ignite a response. When that brought disappointing results, Nelson continued to press the issue and in 1969 hit upon the idea of holding a national teach-in on college campuses on environmental issues, modeled on teach-ins against the Vietnam War.
On the first Earth Day in 1970, some 20 million Americans 10 per cent of the nation's population participated in a wide range of activities promoting a cleaner Earth.
Earth Day has since grown into an international event, observed in schools and by organizations on April 22 each year. In 2000, an estimated 500 million people took part in Earth Day activities in 174 countries. This year, 80 percent of the schools in the U.S. held Earth Day activities, organizers said.
Although best known for his environmental work, Nelson also was a key player in the Senate on consumer protection, civil rights, poverty, and civil liberties issues. Nelson took on the tire industry on safety issues, and held 10 years of subcommittee hearings that spotlighted abuses and problems in the pharmaceutical industry.
He was one of the earliest opponents of the Vietnam War, and drafted an amendment to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution to make it clear the resolution did not authorize a ground war, but Sen. J. William Fulbright assured Nelson the amendment was not necessary because President Lyndon B. Johnson had no intention of escalating the ground war. When escalation came, Nelson cast one of three votes against an appropriation for the war in 1965, saying, "You need my vote less than I need my conscience."
The son of a country doctor and a nurse, Nelson was born on June 4, 1916, in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, a village of 700 in northwestern Wisconsin. His parents were active Progressives who supported Robert M. (Fighting Bob) La Follette, the populist Wisconsin governor and Senator who ran as a third party candidate for President in 1924.
He received a bachelor's degree from San Jose State College and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. He served in the Army Quartermaster Corps during World War II, commanding a company of black troops in the segregated Army, and was discharged as a first lieutenant in 1946. When he was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1948, one of the first bills he introduced was one to desegregate the state's National Guard.
Nelson met his future wife, Army nurse Carrie Lee Dotson, at a Pennsylvania Army base but he soon shipped out and did not expect to see her again. They were reunited on Okinawa, where both were stationed in 1945. Their story is featured in the best-selling Tom Brokaw book, "The Greatest Generation."
Nelson's many honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, presented in 1995 by President Bill Clinton. A Wisconsin state park, the Apostle Islands wilderness area, and the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin all are named for him.
When the Audubon Society recognized 100 people who had shaped the environmental movement in the 20th Century, it said the two political figures on the list who stood out were Nelson and President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked a panel of historians and other experts to name the century's 10 most significant people in Wisconsin. Nelson ranked fourth, behind Robert M. (Fighting Bob) La Follette, naturalist, philosopher and author Aldo Leopold, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Surviving are: Nelson's widow, Carrie Lee; two sons, Gaylord Jr.(and wife Mary), known as Happy, of Dane, Wis.; and Jeffrey (and wife Laura), of Kensington, Md.; a daughter, Tia, of Madison, Wis.; and four grandchildren, Kiva, Jason, Benjamin, and Julia.
Memorial services will be in Madison. Arrangements are pending. Burial will be in Clear Lake, Wis.
The family asks that memorials in Nelson's name be made to: the Gaylord Nelson chair at the Gaylord A. Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin; the Gaylord Nelson Studio of WisconsinEye; the Friends of the Apostle Islands; or the Wilderness Society.
Bill Christofferson is the author of a 2004 biography of Gaylord Nelson titled "The Man From Clear Lake," published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
© 2005 Capital Times