Gaylord Anton Nelson (1916-2005), known worldwide as the founder of Earth Day, was the son of a country doctor and a nurse. Born the third of four children on June 4, 1916, at Clear Lake, Wisconsin, 28 miles from here, Nelson canoed the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers as a boy. Plans announced in 1964 for a new power plant on the St. Croix River spurred Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin at the time, to believe the riverway deserved federal protection. Although the power plant was ultimately built, the controversy stimulated the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1989. Designation of 102 miles of the St. Croix River and 98 miles of the Namekagon River created the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, the first such riverway east of the Mississippi.
Nelson held elective office for thirty-two years, including two terms as Wisconsin governor (1959-1963) and three terms in the U.S. Senate (1963-1981). As senator, Nelson was an environmental leader, working to protect the Appalachian Trail corridor, implementing a National Trail System, ban the pesticide DDT, established the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, pass the Wilderness Act, and founded Earth Day. Twenty million people, 10 percent of the American public, participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
When Nelson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, President Clinton proclaimed, "As the father of Earth Day, he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event: the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act." Gaylord Nelson died on July 2, 2005, at the age of 89.