“The opportunity for a gradual but complete break with our destructive environmental history and a new beginning is at hand…. We can measure up to the challenge if we have the will to do so — that is the only question. I am optimistic that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society.”
former Senator Gaylord Nelson on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 1995

As Earth Week 2021 draws to a close today, I find myself reflecting on the legacy of the father of the first Earth Day observed 51 years ago and upon this and future generations’ will to match his passion.

The same year that I graduated from high school in Hudson, Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson was elected to represent the Badger state in the U.S. Senate. Back then as a teenager I paid little or no attention to state or national politics. Like most kids my age, the whole world revolved around me and my interests (namely high school athletics and a girl friend). If my Civics teacher (our baseball coach) informed the class that Gaylord Nelson had served as a Wisconsin state Senator and two term Governor and was now running for national office, I must have been day dreaming that day about driving in the winning run in the bottom of the 9th.

Fortunately for me, the state, the nation and for the entire planet, Gaylord Nelson as a teenager growing up 30 miles northeast of Hudson was interested in more substantial matters that had escaped my myopic and self-centered radar. He was enamored by the St. Croix River and the forest around it, the same river I fished in during the summer and skated on in winter. His youthful affection for the river and wilderness became the hallmark of his subsequent political career.

As a newly elected U.S. Senator in 1962, he quickly discovered that Washington had no environmental political agenda despite the many urgent national issues, and immediately set to the task of altering that agenda. He approached the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in 1963 with the idea of leading JFK on a national “conservation tour” as part of the administrations “New Frontier” agenda. He even went so far as to boldly draft correspondence to the President that included talking points and compelling quotations from his heroes, University of Wisconsin conservation legends Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner. JFK acquiesced, but the tour didn’t engender the outcomes Nelson had hoped for, and the next six years saw little progress in moving the environmental agenda forward.

Under Lyndon Johnson’s administration Nelson was at the front lines in advancing Civil Rights legislation and waged the War on Poverty. He saw these battles as part and parcel of his environmental agenda. He once stated:“Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.”

He balked at the notion that economic prosperity and environmental protection are at odds. He introduced programs that appropriated millions of dollars for the creation of conservation jobs and skills training for the poor and the elderly. Still, moving his congressional colleagues to champion environmental reforms was like pulling teeth.

But on October 2, 1968, the wilderness-loving youngster within him gleefully watched LBJ sign into law the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. At the signing the President made these remarks:
In the past 50 years, we have learned—all too slowly, I think—to prize and protect God’s precious gifts. Because we have, our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them … An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today…”
To Senator Nelson’s delight, the St. Croix River and its largest tributary, the Namekagon River, were among the first eight rivers to be designated in the act.

This past Monday we learned of the passing of former Vice President, Walter Mondale. Before he was VP, he was a Senate colleague of Nelson’s from the neighboring state of Minnesota. He worked with Nelson to get the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act passed. During the Senate hearing on the bill’s passage he stated:
“I express my profound appreciation for the leadership of the chairman of the subcommittee and the floor manager of this most important measure, and for the leadership of the Senator from Wisconsin [Mr. NELSON], who continues to be one of the great leaders of this country in conservation matters. I have found it most fulfilling and valuable to work with him on this proposal, and I believe it will be a wonderful day for the upper Midwest if the bill is passed.“

Senator Nelson’s legacy of conservation/environmental leadership would be sealed forever when in the following year he concocted the idea for a national environmental “teach in” that would be hatched on April 22, 1970 as the first Earth Day. Over the past half century the vision of a nature-loving Senator from my home state has blossomed into a planetary call for environmental justice for all creation. And in that same time my own interest in and knowledge of the politics of environmental justice that Gaylord Nelson championed has also blossomed and matured thanks to him and all those who have grabbed the baton he has passed on and run with it.

Today I pray that we all may honor his legacy by imitating the passion and perseverance that Gaylord Nelson demonstrated throughout his career as an environmental champion. May we dig deep to find the optimism he held that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society. This is the critical commodity that must be marketed and bought into by a myopic and self-centered society overly concerned with short term gain if the user-friendly planet we have known is to thrive and survive for generations to come.

Speaking to a world audience and the world’s leaders on Earth Day, Pope Francis reminded us all of the need to act NOW to protect the planet with the words of this old Spanish saying: “God always forgives, men forgive from time to time, nature no longer forgives.”