MADISON (WKOW) -- When Gaylord Nelson first proposed the idea, he called it "Environmental Teach-In Day." But it became known around the world as Earth Day.
"The original idea was to organize college campuses and K-12 schools. But, word got out and communities began to organize themselves," says Nelson's daughter, Tia Nelson. "Twenty million people participated that day. It was the largest event in the history of the country at the time."
In a speech in Milwaukee on April 22, 1970, Senator Nelson left no doubt where the environment stood on his list of political priorities.
"I don't think there's any other issue, viewed in its broadest sense, that's as critical to mankind as the issue of the quality of the environment in which we live," he said.
"I think what was so important was that, given all the focus on Vietnam, there was something to feel good about Earth Day. It was a celebration of life, a change in direction for the nation and its values," remembers Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who was invited by Nelson to speak at the first Earth Day event in Madison.
And University of Wisconsin environmental historian professor William Cronon adds this perspective, "Gaylord Nelson's genius was to recognize that the community organizing, the gathering of people to talk about their shared values and common future, was something that had the ability to bring together Americans who might otherwise be divided."
Earth Day also brought together elected leaders, who spent the next decade creating more than three dozen federal laws to protect the environment, including the Clean Air and Water Acts and a Gaylord Nelson favorite, The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. And four decades later, we still see the effects with the Green Movement we have today.