Person

Gaylord Nelson

An older man with a black hat and khaki jacket with water and trees in the background.
Gaylord Nelson speaking to a group on Stockton Island in 2003.

NPS Photo

Quick Facts

A Legacy of Stewardship

One of four children, Nelson was born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin on June 4, 1919 to Mary (Bradt), a nurse and Anton Nelson, a country doctor. Growing up in the north woods of Wisconsin allowed him to foster a deep love of the outdoors. At an early age, he was exposed to the politics of the day by his father, which helped Nelson develop an appreciation for progressive ideals and learn about the role of government in society. He went on to become a lawyer and serve in the Pacific during WWII. Post-war, Nelson was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1948 and held that office for a decade before becoming the Governor of the state. After two terms as Governor, he was elected to the US Senate in 1962 where he served until 1981.

In 1969, then US Senator from Wisconsin, Nelson formulated one of the most powerful ideas of the century. While returning from California where he witnessed the devastating effects of an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Nelson was inspired by an article about teach-ins as part of anti-war efforts. He was moved to wonder aloud, “Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment?” On April 22, 1970 the first Earth Day was a resounding success, celebrated by 20 million people across the US who came together in their communities to support the environment. The American Heritage Magazine called this first Earth Day “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.” Earth Day, now an annual international event, continues to inspire environmental movements and legislation around the globe. This single day, that became a worldwide phenomenon, is only a fraction of Nelson’s legacy.   

Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.

Gaylord Nelson

 Long before the idea of the first Earth Day, this tireless champion of the people and the environment, cultivated a dream to preserve the magical landscape of the Apostle Islands. He sought to safeguard the undeveloped shorelines, red sandstone cliffs, unique landforms, flora, and fauna of this special place. His dedication to the betterment of society through preservation remained throughout his career. 

This love of the natural environment and concern for the wellness of all through conservation was well received in Washington. Both Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and President John F. Kennedy recognized the value in developing a national recreation area in the Chequamegon Bay region and traveled to Ashland in 1963, flying over the Apostle Islands as part of a national conservation tour. Years of negotiation, compromise and collaboration came to fruition on September 26, 1970 when President Richard Nixon signed legislation creating the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The bill included 20 islands and a 12 mile strip of mainland containing the sea caves.

This is a unique collection of islands…..there is not another collection of islands of this significance within the continental boundaries of the United States. I think it is tremendously important that this collection of islands be preserved.

Gaylord Nelson

Through continued diligence and grace, Nelson and others were able to convince the government and public that the islands greatest value lay in their preservation as a wilderness. On December 8, 2004, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness was created as President George W. Bush signed legislation designating 80% of the land area of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore as Wilderness.

The winner of many prestigious awards, his accomplishments and his legacy are perhaps best expressed in The Presidential Medal of Freedom proclamation from President Clinton, which states, ”As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event: the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act….” After leaving the Senate in 1981, he continued to work for 14 years on behalf of the people and the environment as counselor for the Wilderness Society. When asked why he continued to work he said only, “Our work’s not done.”

Last updated: April 21, 2020