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Gaylord Nelson talks to reporters during the Celebrating Community-based Conservation 2001 conference on April 21, 2001, in Oshkosh, Wis. Nelson, the former governor and U.S. senator from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day and helped spawn the modern environmental movement, died Sunday, July 3, 2005. He was 89. (AP Photo/Mark Hoffman)

How did Earth Day come to be? Meet the man behind America's environmental holiday.


Forty-seven years ago, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., helped launch the country's first Earth Day on April 22, 1970--further propelling the environmental movement into American consciousness. Thanks to the dedication of the longtime conservationist, roughly 20 million Americans demonstrated nationwide to demand regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment. Their efforts are what eventually pressured Congress into establishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal agency designated to tackling environmental issues.

An impressive resume

As a native of Wisconsin, Nelson candidly claimed that he had become impassioned with environmentalism "by osmosis." He promoted conservation as the governor of Wisconsin, which eventually took him to the Senate in 1962. In his maiden speech, he called for “a comprehensive, nationwide program to save the natural resources of America.”

Earth Day 1970 Part 2: Gaylord Nelson's Speech (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)

WATCH | Sen. Gaylord Nelson delivers remarks on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Inspired by the anti-war efforts

A slew of environmental disasters in the 1960s concerned Nelson, who said that the U.S. lacked a "unity of purpose" to respond to the increasing threats against the environment. After touring an area on the coast of Santa Barbara that experienced a major oil spill, an outraged Nelson decided to apply the same grassroots model used by anti-Vietnam protesters to the environment. 

In September 1969, the senator and his staff brainstormed how to sponsor environmental teach-ins on college campuses--believing that a bottom-up organizational approach would prove more successful. After raising funds to set up an office staffed by college students, Denis Hayes, a then law student, was named national coordinator. 

VIEW | Earth Day signs throughout the world.

So why April 22? The group identified the end of April as a prime time to schedule Earth Day because of optimal weather. They eventually settled on Wednesday April 22 because there tended to be more students on campus on that day.

Critics of the movement pointed out that April 22 was the birthday of revolutionary communist, Vladimir Lenin. Nelson rebutted, noting that it was also the birthday of the "first environmentalist," Saint Francis of Assisi.

A lasting impact

Through his years in public service, Nelson spearheaded an impressive list of political accomplishments, including preserving the Appalachian Trail, banning DDT -- a pesticide--as as well as sponsoring legislation such as the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Despite these comprehensive environmental successes, it's his relentless leadership in establishing the first Earth Day that continues to be hailed by more than 192 countries around the world. 

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