Gaylord Nelson, 1916-2005

Progressive Wis. Senator Was Founder Of Earth Day

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005

Gaylord Nelson, 89, the three-term Democratic senator from Wisconsin who introduced mainstream America to the modern environmental movement by founding Earth Day, died of cardiopulmonary disease yesterday at his home in Kensington.

One of the leading environmentalists of the 20th century, Nelson also co-sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and sponsored or co-sponsored laws that protected the Appalachian Trail and banned the pesticide DDT, Agent Orange and phosphate detergents. He backed fuel efficiency standards in vehicles and strip-mining controls. He wrote the first environmental education act. He once proposed a ban on the internal combustion engine, as an amendment to the Clean Air Act.

A former Wisconsin governor and state senator, he was narrowly defeated for re-election to the U.S. Senate in the 1980 Republican landslide. For the past 24 years he worked for the Wilderness Society in Washington.

"Anyone who cares about the quality of our air, water, and land should be grateful for the life of Gaylord Nelson," William H. Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

Nelson, a compact man who has been described as having the stamina of a small bear and the public persona of a high school principal, came up with the idea for Earth Day in 1969 after visiting an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. On the way home, he picked up a copy of the radical journal Ramparts and read about a "teach-in" on the Vietnam War and decided to adapt the idea for the environment.

He hired Denis Hayes, then a student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, to organize the event, foreseeing a friendly picnic that would appeal to Boy Scouts, mayors, college students and autoworkers. Hayes preferred something more political. Both were astounded by the turnout: 20 million Americans joined the April 22, 1970, event, cleaning creeks, recycling tin cans and learning about ecology.

"Gaylord's unique contribution is that he was the first person to see the political importance of conservation, that it could be used to mobilize people," Hayes said yesterday. "He recognized the partnership between traditional conservation issues and the new emerging urban and industrial issues. Largely forgotten is that he was the first and most important to help us build bridges between environmental concerns and organized labor."

Earth Day launched what activists called the "decade of the environment," during which 28 major pieces of legislation became law, and Nelson had a hand in many of them.

He defined environmentalism broadly. In 1970, he told college students in Denver that the environment "is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is 'public housing' that isn't worthy of the name. It is a problem whose existence is perpetuated by the expenditure of $25 billion a year on the war in Vietnam, instead of our decaying, crowded, congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people."

Nelson had been suspicious of American involvement in Vietnam since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which he tried to amend to limit the military's response. Convinced by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) that the amendment wasn't necessary, Nelson withdrew it, but he was one of only three senators to vote against the $700 million appropriation that sent ground troops into Vietnam. He remained a critic of the war throughout the 1970s.

He was also a consumer advocate, urging federal tire safety standards, and he held a decade's worth of hearings on abuses in the pharmaceutical industry. He sponsored the legislation that allowed the federal government to retain control of President Richard Nixon's papers and tape recordings. In the 1990s, he spoke out about overpopulation, urging stricter immigration quotas.

Well-liked by his colleagues, he was ranked at the top of a 1971 senatorial popularity poll taken by a Rutgers University professor. Bill Christofferson, who wrote a 2004 authorized biography of Nelson, said he "never lost that small-town civility and charm, and a genuine interest in people."

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