Former Wisconsin Governor and Senator Gaylor Nelson had a vision, a day to celebrate nature and the environment, and on April 22, 1970, he launched the first Earth Day.

“I have great respect for Gaylord Nelson,” current Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers in a phone conversation with RiverTown Multimedia. “He was a quiet man, but he accomplished a lot both as a senator and as the governor.”

Nelson’s work to establish Earth Day has influenced Evers in his own work as governor, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers addresses the audience when he signed the Executive Order establishing the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy on April 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of Governor Evers’ Office
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers addresses the audience when he signed the Executive Order establishing the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy on April 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of Governor Evers’ Office

“Related to what we are going through now,” Evers said, “we know that science is an important thing, and using it to help us make decisions goes back to Governor Nelson’s legacy around Earth Day.”

Evers established his first state budget with concerns for clean drinking water and going carbon free by 2050. He also created a climate change task force under the direction of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

“We are having conversations about renewable energy, wind power, solar energy, and the coming together of the utility world and the environmental world in a way that we have never seen before,” Evers said. “That is not to say it wouldn’t have happened without Earth Day, but Earth Day has helped us understand that being sustainable and environmentally friendly is a high value.”

Red Wing ELC

Likely, many of the same motivations behind Earth Day came into play in Red Wing when a task force created the Environmental Learning Center - ELC - on June 1, 1970, just over a month after the first Earth Day.

The first director of the ELC, Bruce Ause, said “Earth Day was the initial thrust of the environmental movement. Gaylord Nelson was motivated by the massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. At the same time that was going on, the Cuayhoga River in Ohio was burning from all the oil they were dumping into it. There were horrible air pollution problems and toxic dumps. I think people had just had enough.”

Bruce Ause, the first director of the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, credits Earth Day with launching the environmental movement. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Bruce Ause, the first director of the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, credits Earth Day with launching the environmental movement. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Ause said one of the most impressive things about Nelson’s efforts to establish Earth Day was the strong bipartisan support he received.

“In 1972 when they passed the legislation for the Environmental Protection Agency and for clean water and clean air, that was all bipartisan and signed by Richard Nixon,” Ause said. “In a time when we are so divisive, you would think that effort would have some credibility on how important it is to protect things that are vital to our security and vital to our health.”

Over the years, Ause has seen many organizations get involved in Earth Day activities. In addition to the ELC, he said the Sustainability Commission, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Friends of the Bluffs, and other groups have involved hundreds of people in Earth Day events.

“It is a unifying thing that brings together a lot of different organizations that are trying to do the same thing on their own,” Ause said.

Original plans for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day included many large celebrations across the globe. Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis has affected Earth Day events as well as every other type of public event. Earth Day organizers have shifted their efforts toward digital celebrations and more information about those can be found at www.earthday.org.

Moving the events online “won’t have the same visual impact,” Ause said, “but it will still be effective.”

With stay-at-home orders in effect in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, Evers said that situation gives us an opportunity to celebrate Earth Day in a new way.

“Governor Nelson has a long, great legacy that we want to celebrate, and on this Earth Day, it is very important for us to take a look internally at what we are doing in our own homes,” Evers said. “Many of us are sheltering in our homes, and it is a good opportunity to see what we can do right in our own homes, in our own yards, in our own personal environments to make this world a better place.”