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Celebrating Gaylord Nelson: Earth Day Turns 50

This week we honor Gaylord Nelson's legacy as the founder of Earth Day. I met Gaylord Nelson nearly 16 years ago at the 40th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act celebration in Washington, D.C. I was environmental counsel for Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who founded and led the Senate Wilderness Caucus.

At 88 years young, Nelson was kind, engaged, and as passionate as ever about public lands. I shared with him that I fell in love with the Apostle Islands, the Northwoods, Devil's Lake, and the beautiful landscapes of Wisconsin that he knew so well. He smiled, took a photo with me, and told me how much he enjoyed the outdoors. He often said that he became an environmentalist by "osmosis" during his childhood adventures exploring his home town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin.

Nelson not only inspired Earth Day, but also served as governor and a U.S senator from his beloved Wisconsin. After politics, he was a board member and advisor to the nonprofit Wilderness Society for years. I am proud to have supported Senator Feingold in his efforts to pass a Senate resolution commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act and carrying on Nelson's legacy of conservation and environmental protection.

As we pause to mark the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020, let's remember the career and mission this remarkable man. After witnessing an oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969, Nelson was moved by the hundreds of volunteers helping with the clean up. On the flight back home, he read an article about the student protests in Vietnam. He was determined to get the nation to wake up and pay attention to the most important challenge the human species faces on the planet." Nelson encouraged his Senate staff to reach out to college campuses and model the teach-ins of the antiwar movement to spark a "unity of purpose" in the environmental movement. He recruited activist Denis Hayes to help make this concept a reality. In 1970, more than 20 million Americans -10% of the U.S. population at the time- and 2000 college campuses participated in the first Earth Day. Now more than 200 million people around the world observe Earth Day.

As Nelson eloquently stated, our collective work in environmental health and conservation relies on the "mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures." Creating solutions for the enormous environmental challenges we face -- global warming, species extinction, and plastic pollution -- will require fundamental respect. This quote is particularly poignant during Covid-19. Social distancing and quarantine life have illustrated that we are connected in profound ways.

To celebrate Earth Day, check out the latest from the Earth Day Network and find the nearest digital event in your community. Also, be sure to watch The Story of Plastic by Montana State University's very own Deia Schlosberg on the Discovery Channel on April 22. (I love seeing creatives from the Greater Yellowstone tell powerful stories.) Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a board upon which I serve, is a producer of this powerful documentary. PPC board member Jackson Browne has released a new single in celebration of the film. Finally, if your local social distancing protocols allow, spend time outside this week. The fresh air will provide some important perspective and a reminder that our health and nature are intertwined. Look up and say a quiet thank you a kid from Clear Lake, Wisconsin who grew up to be a visionary advocate for the earth.


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