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The Father of Earth Day: Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Nelson dedicated his life to improving the world. In 1916, Nelson was born to a nurse and country doctor in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. Growing up in the wilderness stoked his interest in environmentalism, but state hero Senator “Fighting Bob” La Follette influenced his progressive politics. After graduating high school, he took his political ambitions to San Jose State University in California, where he majored in political science.

Following his time at San Jose State, Nelson received his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School. He practiced law in the state before joining the Army during World War II. The young lawyer continued practicing until starting his political career in 1948. He served as a state senator before becoming the thirty-fifth Governor of Wisconsin. His time as governor brought reforms to education, health care, and infrastructure. However, his most notable contribution was overhauling the state’s natural resource program into the Department of Resource Development and establishing the Youth Conservation Corps. He created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program to conserve land in his home state.

Nelson continued to merge politics and environmentalism when he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. His ecologically-conscious efforts led to legislation like the Wilderness Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. The environmentalist authored legislation to create a national hiking trail system. He introduced the first federal laws for better fuel-efficiency automobile standards, controlled strip mining, and banned certain harmful substances in everyday items such as detergents and pesticides.

Unfortunately, his time as a U.S. Senator ended in 1980 after losing his re-election bid. He continued his conservation work by serving the Wilderness Society for several years. In his later years, his media presence increased while speaking about ecology, including being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died from heart failure on July 3, 2005, at age 89.

Gaylord Nelson used his legislative power to preserve nature for future generations. His environmental work continues with the efforts of well-known environmentalists and conservation organizations. His contributions as a politician and environmentalist have continued to thrive despite efforts to roll back his legislation. I want to say, “We all appreciate your fortitude and love for the wilderness to make the U.S. more beautiful and sustainable, Mr. Nelson.”

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