By Erin Sandlin

GAYLORD NELSON’S lifelong goal of putting the environment onto the nation’s political agenda began when he was a young boy in his hometown of Clear Lake, Wis. Surrounded by the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, the largest state forest in Wisconsin, he grew up among 223,283 acres of pristine lakes and landscapes. There, he developed a strong relationship with the forests around him and his passion for nature that would fuel his political career. That political career began when the World War II veteran was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1948. In 1958, he was elected Governor of Wisconsin and, during his term, he initiated the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program (ORAP) in Wisconsin. The program, which funded the purchase of a million acres of recreation and wildlife areas through a tax on cigarettes, was only the first of Nelson’s many notable conservation achievements.

Portrait of Senator Nelson Gaylord In 1962, Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he would achieve his most famous accomplishment. Public and political attention was shifting towards various ecological problems and Senator Nelson channeled this emerging environmental consciousness into the first Earth Day. These nation-wide demonstrations and organized protests against the deterioration of the environment brought together groups concerned with a variety of environmental issues from the loss of wilderness to oil spills, air pollution and pesticides. Ever since, Earth Day has contributed to the modern environmental movement and is proof that the environment can bring diverse groups together for a common cause.

Senator Nelson passed away in 2005 at the age of 89, but his legacy continues. In his 1970 Earth Day speech, he stated, “The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures, will require a long, sustained, political, rural, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any effort we ever made before in any enterprise in the history of man.” This is a huge undertaking, but Senator Gaylord Nelson has shown that one individual’s momentum can continue to fuel society’s environmental consciousness for years to come.

Erin Sandlin served as American Forests’ spring 2015 policy intern and is a senior at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., working towards a politics degree with a minor in sustainability.