Remembering the Father of Earth Day

A visit to Senator Gaylord Nelson’s Wisconsin grave provides an occasion to remember his legacy of the Wild & Scenic St. Croix.




2 minute read

Jonathan Moore is Park Ranger — Partnerships & Volunteers, St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

Riverway staff and Charlie Clark visit Gaylord Nelson's gravesite.
Riverway staff and Charlie Clark visit Gaylord Nelson’s gravesite.

Park staff at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway recently visited the grave of Senator Gaylord Nelson in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, to pay tribute to the founder of Earth Day.  Here in the small North Woods town of Clear Lake, Nelson was born and attended school.  In this landscape of woods and water, Gaylord also gained an early appreciation for the natural environment.

As the mayor’s son, Nelson followed in his father’s footsteps, going on to become a state senator, Wisconsin’s governor, and a U.S. Senator.  During his thirty-two years in elected office, stewardship of natural resources was his passion.  He authored legislation to preserve the Appalachian Trail and to create a national hiking trail system.  He was also instrumental in the passage of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act, Alaska Lands Act and the National Environmental Education Act.  In Wisconsin, he is perhaps most fondly remembered for the creation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

“It gives me hope that future generations of children will be able to paddle the same rivers, the St. Croix and the Namekagon, that Gaylord paddled in his youth,” reflected Charlie Clark, one of Nelson’s close, lifelong friends.  “To think that these children will experience these rivers in the same condition Gaylord did—clean and free-flowing—is truly inspiring.”

Nelson’s best known legacy may be his founding of Earth Day, a national day to focus the public’s attention on the environment.  The first Earth Day was observed by twenty million people, ten percent of the American public at the time.  Today, more than one billion people participate in Earth Day, according to the Earth Day Network, making it the largest civic observance in the world.

“To me, the central message of Earth Day is to leave the world a better place,” said Superintendent Chris Stein, “and one doesn’t have to go very far to see how Senator Nelson did that.  Here on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the St. Croix River is still a wild and scenic place.  That’s a testament to Senator Nelson’s work.  It’s also a charge for the National Park Service and the American people to see that it stays that way.”

The first Earth Day was observed forty-three years ago today, April 22, 1970.


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Remembering the Father of Earth Day