Keepers of the Earth Day flame

Fifty years after Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day, environmentalists continue to mobilize around climate change.
Gaylord Nelson In Boat
Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands in 1967

It’s with mixed emotions that Tia Nelson prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

On one hand, Nelson is absolutely thrilled the event launched by her father, former Wisconsin Gov. and Sen. Gaylord Nelson, has endured a half-century. Earth Day 2020 promises celebrations worldwide, including a full day of events in Madison.

But on a more somber note, Nelson is immensely troubled by the threat of climate change and the dire consequences it portends. Her recent work as managing director on climate change for the Outrider Foundation has only made her realize the challenges ahead and the pressing need for immediate action.

The increase in global temperatures has been linked to rising sea levels, long-term drought and more violent storm events, Nelson warns. But the impact goes far beyond weather, impacting plant and animal ecosystems on a global scale. Everything from food production to public health is at risk, she says.

Backtracking by the Trump administration on the Paris climate agreement and the ongoing volley of climate change deniers have left Nelson with more than one sleepless night. It’s an issue she takes personally given her background and a lifetime of service in the name of the environment.

“The climate crisis calls for a renewed sense of commitment and action,” she says. “People need to feel inspired that they can build a brighter future.”

Local recognition, action

Tia Nelson standing outside

Tia Nelson 

To that end, the Outrider Foundation is producing a short film titled “When the Earth Moves” that will debut April 15 on YouTube.

A full day of programming is planned on April 20 under the title “Earth Day @ 50: Aspiring for Sustainability, Striving for Justice, Crafting the Planet” sponsored by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the University of Wisconsin–Madison department named in honor of Gaylord Nelson.

Featured speakers include Lucas Joppa, chief sustainability officer at Microsoft Corp.; the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, a pastor of ecological justice from Boston; and Jeff Orlowski, director of the Netflix film “Chasing Coral.”

Paul Robbins, dean of the Nelson Institute, says there will be plenty of time for reflecting on the history of Earth Day and the ties to Wisconsin’s long conservation legacy. But he also emphasizes the need to broaden the environmental movement and reach new audiences.

“Frankly, when I’ve looked out in the audience for some of our earlier Earth Day events, I’ve seen a lot of gray hair,” he says. “So for the 50th we thought it was the time for us to honor young people and youth leadership.”

Robbins says addressing today’s environmental challenges will require creative solutions that span generational and cultural divides. That includes welcoming the contributions of artists, activists, scientists and students of all ages and backgrounds.

“For example, we’ve got partners in Milwaukee who are concerned about clean air and clean water in urban areas,” he says. “We also want to hear more from the faith community.”

Starting It All

Tia Nelson with Gaylord Nelson

Tia Nelson stands with her father, Gaylord Nelson, in the backyard of her parents’ Kensington, Maryland, home in 2004. Gaylord Nelson died on July 3, 2005.

Gaylord Nelson was seeking the same sort of broad coalition when he visited coastal Santa Barbara, California, in 1969 to witness the most significant oil spill in U.S. history at the time. While there, Nelson gave a speech calling for a one-day “environmental teach-in” to educate the public about the issue. The idea, later dubbed “Earth Day” by a Harvard student activist recruited by Nelson, began to take root.

At the time, Nelson said the purpose of Earth Day was to spark a nationwide movement so large it would shake the Washington establishment out of its lethargy and finally force environmental issues into the political arena.

But even Nelson was surprised when on April 22, 1970, 20 million people gathered around the country for what remains the largest single demonstration in American history.

Over 10,000 schools and 2,000 colleges took part that day, helping to launch a new “green generation” of people concerned about the environment. Congress even adjourned for the day to allow members to speak at Earth Day events back home.

Nelson’s strategy to mobilize the nation worked quicker than anyone could have imagined. Just a few months later, the Clean Air Act passed without a single “no” vote in the Senate. Republican President Richard Nixon then capped the year by creating the Environmental Protection Agency with the express purpose of protecting human health and the planet.

Gaylord nelson speaking

Gaylord Nelson speaking on the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

“Gaylord was self-effacing but a very savvy politician,” Robbins notes. “He knew it was important to pick things that everybody cared about, and who doesn’t like clean air and clean water?”

Gaylord Nelson was born in 1916 in Clear Lake, a tiny Wisconsin community not far from the St. Croix River and Minnesota border. Growing up in a family stirred by the progressive politics of Wisconsin’s Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, Gaylord Nelson decided at a young age he would devote his life to public service.

Gaylord Nelson earned a law degree from UW–Madison in 1942 and following a stint in the Navy during World War II became a rising young star on the state’s political stage. He served in the State Senate from 1949 to 1959, then as governor from 1959 to 1963. During his time in Madison, Gaylord Nelson championed a host of environmental issues including land conservation, water quality improvement and habitat protection.

Gaylord Nelson took that same commitment to a national stage where he served three consecutive terms as a U.S. senator from 1963 to 1981. Gaylord Nelson died in 2005 at the age of 89. His wife, Carrie Lee Nelson, 97, still resides in Washington, D.C.

What Comes Next

Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Nelson in 1995


During the week of Earth Day, Tia Nelson plans to travel to Dallas and Washington, D.C., to attend screenings of the Outrider film. She says she will urge audiences to talk to their elected officials about the climate issue.

“Look, we all know what needs to be done,” she says. “Renewable energy is getting more abundant and inexpensive every day. It’s simply a question of making it happen.”

The Outrider Foundation was launched in 2015 by Madison Investment Advisors founder Frank Burgess, who was looking for a way to put his business success to good use. Outrider focuses on an educational platform based around climate change and nuclear disarmament.

Tia Nelson, 63, was hired to lead Outrider after working 11 years as director of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which included a gubernatorial appointment as co-chair of Wisconsin’s Task Force on Global Warming.

Prior to that, Tia Nelson spent 17 years with The Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C., as a policy adviser for Latin America and later as the first director of the organization’s global climate change initiative. For this work, she received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Protection Award in 2000.

Despite the magnitude of the climate crisis, Nelson takes solace in the efforts of young activists — teenager Greta Thunberg, being a great example.

“Who could have ever imagined that this socially shy child from Sweden could have spawned an international movement?” Nelson says. “In some ways, she is like Rosa Parks, who changed the course of history by simply saying ‘No, I’m not giving up my seat on this bus.’ Obviously, they both have very different life experiences, but it shows how unimaginable outcomes can arise from a single act of conscience.”

And at a time when environmentalists might find it hard to stay positive, Nelson knows “Papa” would not have shied from the fight.

“That’s the message I want people to hear, that we can build a brighter future that will be worth celebrating on the 100th and 200th anniversaries of Earth Day,” she says.

Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer.