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Interview: Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005), Founder of Earth Day

Milo Charles Mason


  • Looks into the 1995 NR&E interview with Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, on the 25th anniversary of the interview.
  • Discusses how Nelson came up with the idea for Earth Day and how he successfully implemented the idea.
  • Delves into Nelson’s environmental concerns and discusses what needs to be done to maintain a more sustainable society.
Interview: Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005), Founder of Earth Day
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Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, spoke with NR&E shortly before the 25th anniversary of Earth Day (NR&E Summer 1995). In honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are pleased to share that interview.

Nelson served 10 years in the Wisconsin Senate, was twice elected governor, and in 1963 began an 18-year career in the U.S. Senate. As a U.S. senator, he was the first to introduce bills to ban the use of DDT, mandate fuel efficiency standards in cars, control strip-mining, and prohibit use of agent orange.

As governor of Wisconsin, he won approval of a penny-a-pack cigarette tax earmarked for the purchase of wildlife habitat, parks, and wetlands. A near landmark in his own right, having forged new ideas and laws for the environment, natural resources, and energy,

After working in government, Sen. Nelson was a counselor of The Wilderness Society and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 from President Bill Clinton.

His legacy endures, with his namesake bestowed on University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (or Nelson Institute), the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a park he helped create, and the Governor Nelson State Park near Waunakee, Wisconsin.

This interview has been reprinted to honor Sen. Nelson and to say: “Sometimes you need to look back to see what’s needed going forward.”

NR&E: Many NR&E readers may not know you are the founder of Earth Day. How and when did the proverbial light bulb for Earth Day come to you?

Nelson: For many years it concerned me that the political establishment was not paying serious attention to the most important responsibility that our species has on the planet—that is, the responsibility to protect the integrity of the life-sustaining ecosystem. That is to say, the ecosystem that sustains all life.

We have demonstrated the capacity, as no other creature has, to significantly degrade the ecosystems that sustain all life. We have been doing it quite rapidly with impacts that are both nationwide and worldwide. I wanted to get the environment onto the national agenda of priorities so that we would begin seriously to address it. One day it occurred to me, if I could persuade President Kennedy to go on a nationwide conservation tour, that that would do it. (I had been elected to the U.S. Senate, but hadn’t gone to Washington. I was still governor of Wisconsin.) That would focus the nation’s attention on the issue, and we would then force it into the political dialogue of the country and onto the political agenda. So, I picked up the phone and called Bobby Kennedy, who was attorney general at the time. This would be November 1962. I called Bobby, got an appointment, flew to Washington, and spent a substantial amount of time with him. I had with me a scrapbook of environmental news clips that I wanted to show him. It was a big scrapbook, about three feet by three feet. I brought it along because that year I had gotten passed a one-cent cigarette tax earmarked for the acquisition of a million acres of wildlife habitat, parks, wetlands, and so forth. Every paper in the state of Wisconsin had a big headline. I brought the scrapbook along just to show him that there is political stuff in this and he being a good politician would recognize it. After I discussed the merits and the politics of the issue, Bobby decided it was a good idea. He recommended the trip to the president.

The president decided it was a good idea and wrote me a letter asking me for some ideas for speeches. I sent him a five-page single-spaced letter on the issues as I saw them. He then scheduled a trip for August 1963. Senator Hubert Humphrey, Senator Gene McCarthy, Senator Joe Clark and I joined him on the first leg of the trip, which went to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and to Ashland, Wisconsin, where he was greeted by 10,000 people, which was a pretty good crowd considering Ashland had a population of 9,000. It was a huge turnout. We flew over the Apostle Islands because I wanted him to endorse putting the Apostle Islands into the national park system, which he did after seeing them.

ln any event, when we got on the plane in Washington, there were 80 reporters and the three networks onboard. As we took off, I said to myself, “This is it—now this issue is going to be forced onto the political agenda of high priorities.” The long and the short of it is it wasn’t. The president’s tour did not achieve the goal I had in mind. I assumed the reporters would be interested, yet if you don’t know anything about a subject matter, how could you be interested in it or know what’s important about it? And that was the problem. Every place we went the press peppered the president with questions on foreign policy. They didn’t really care what he had to say about the environment. Because I had been paying a lot of attention to this issue for years (before I went to the legislature—10 years in the legislature, four years as governor), it was an upfront issue with me, it wasn’t with them nor with their editors. They seemed bored with the whole thing, really.

The president gave a speech in Ashland and one in Duluth, then headed west. Well, the people around the president weren’t excited about the issue because they didn’t understand it. Again, if you don’t understand it how could it be important? So, the trip was a failure in that respect. After the president left Duluth, he said something on foreign policy that made front page all over the country. What he said about the environment got no notice. It didn’t do what I had hoped for. But it was the germ of the idea that ultimately became Earth Day . . . finding some event that would be big enough to bring this issue to the attention of the political establishment. His trip didn’t do that.

Several years went by and in the early summer of 1969 I was out West on a speaking tour on conservation. I spoke at Santa Barbara at a water conference—the Santa Barbara oil spill occurred in January 1969—to mostly wastewater treatment engineer-types, as I recall. Then I flew up to Berkeley to speak there on the environment and on the way up I read an article in Ramparts magazine about the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins—and I had spoken on a couple of campuses because I was anti-Vietnam War myself—and as I read it I thought, that’s it! Let’s have a national educational demonstration, a teach-in on the environment; get the whole public, grassroots up. I went back to Washington and set up a nonprofit organization. I prepared letters to all the governors and to 300 to 400 mayors asking them to issue Earth Day proclamations. I prepared letters to all the college newspapers, scholastic magazines, all the grade schools and high schools. I didn’t send them out until I finally announced it in September.

Then in September 1969, I flew out to Seattle for a conservation conference. I spoke at it and announced that there would be a national, grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment in the spring of 1970. It made front page in lots of papers. By the time I got back to Washington, the phone was ringing off the hook. There was an immediate and dramatic response. My guess that the grassroots was ahead of the political leadership was correct. My guess was based upon several years of experience . . . I had spoken around the country on this issue from the time I became governor in ’59 all the way on up through ’69 . . . 10 years I had spoken in at least about 38 states to all kinds of groups, and I knew they were ahead of the politicians.

NR&E: Anything from your origins in Wisconsin that got you involved in environmental thinking back then? You were way ahead of most others . . .

Nelson: That’s sort of like asking somebody “When did you get interested in classical music?” I lived in a little town, then 700 people. My dad was a country doctor, and the outdoors was all there was; that was your entertainment. At the end of Main Street in my hometown of Clear Lake was a lake, and it was popular with muskrats and ducks. In the other direction, about a quarter of a mile out of town, were two small lakes—Little Clear Lake and Big Clear Lake—very nice lakes. We fished, we ice skated in the winter, we hunted rabbits and squirrels. We were out in the woods doing something all the time, so my interest evolved in outdoors issues and I started, as a kid, reading all kinds of stuff about animals, and year after year I read more and more. I remember sailing overseas when I was in the Army—we were 55 days aboard ship on the way to Okinawa—and in the library they had all the Osa Johnson books. Osa Johnson and her husband wrote a lot of books on Africa. I had read a couple before . . . when I was in college, I suppose. The ship had every book; I don’t know how many I read—12, 14. But the point is, I was interested in animals and wildlife habitat. By the time I got elected to the legislature in 1948, I was deeply interested in the whole issue and had read a good deal of material including The Plundered Planet, which came out about 1948. I was interested enough to go on to the conservation committee of the state senate. It just sort of grew as time went by, and the more I read, the more important it became to me. It also became more and more obvious that this issue was vital to the country. The status of our resources determines the quality of our life and the standard of living, there is no question about that.

NR&E: You introduced the first law to prohibit the use of DDT. Was that after you noticed fewer redwing blackbirds?

Nelson: DDT became very popular in most of the cities, including wealthy suburbs. The governor’s residence was in the rich suburb of Maple Bluff on Lake Mendota, looking across the lake to the capital. Big trucks would go around and fog the whole area with DDT. Well, you didn’t have to be a scientist to recognize that this was goofy. They were killing mosquitoes, but it was a potent agent affecting birds and every other insect—valuable insects, worms, everything. I just felt that was a crazy idea. In any event, by the time I was elected to the U.S. Senate and came to Washington in 1963, I had read Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. Then I introduced the first legislation in the Senate to ban the use of DDT.

NR&E: Had you done that in Wisconsin?

Nelson: No. I had come out against DDT sometime early on and against phosphates in detergents, but I introduced the bill in 1963. To show you the difference of time, I couldn’t get a single member of the House of Representatives to introduce a companion bill. Today, if you had a bill like that, you’d get a hundred members to put their name on it. After I introduced it, I got criticized by very distinguished people, including scientists and entomologists at the University of Wisconsin; they’re the bug killers. I’ve got editorials saying: “Leave science to the scientists.” Well, you didn’t have to be a scientist to know that you can’t medicate the whole environment without doing peripheral damage. The entomologists were single-minded, and they were looking only at bugs—How do you kill a bug? Dr. Borlog (the famous scientist of the Green Revolution) was in Milwaukee, and he criticized me. So not even Borlog recognized the problem with DDT. But in any event, after about 10 years we did manage to ban it.

NR&E: What do you see as the top two or three most important accomplishments over these last 25 years in protecting our environment?

Nelson: The two most important achievements were one, the forcing the issue of the environment onto the agenda of national priorities. If it hadn’t, we would still be doing nothing. In other words, if it wasn‘t important enough to be addressed by the political system of the country, you weren’t going to do anything. The very important first step was the public demonstration of concern—20 million people—and that got the attention of the politicians. Indeed, Congress had to adjourn for Earth Day because almost every member was requested to go back home and speak on Earth Day.

The second achievement has been the rapidly expanding public understanding and concern. Every single year we have become better informed, more concerned. So now there are all kinds of laws on air pollution, water pollution, hazardous waste, and other important natural resource and environmental problems. About 28 to 29 major pieces of legislation have been passed in the past 25 years, more than one per year. Underneath it all, the most important thing going on is the environmental education in the kindergartens, grade schools, and high schools. We have got to raise a generation that is guided by an environmental ethic, and it is coming along. The most exciting thing to kids—teachers tell me all over—is the environment. That ought to be obvious to anybody; children love the outdoors: butterflies and birds, squirrels and rabbits, fishes, insects, and everything else you can think of they are all interested in.

An environmental ethic is evolving. I speak several times a year at schools. When I speak to the grade schoolers I often ask them, and it doesn’t matter where—East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, South: “Do you eat tuna fish in your family? How many here can guess what I am getting at?” The result is the same almost every time. The last time I asked the question to a hundred kids, first grade through seventh or eighth, 97 hands went up out of the hundred (three little first graders didn’t raise their hands). They all knew that the issue was dolphin-safe. At one of these affairs last year, a nine- or ten-year-old little girl stood up and proudly said that her mother had come home with groceries, and the girl saw a can of tuna and there was no dolphin on it. She got her mother and made her drive back to the grocery store so she could trade in that can of tuna for one with a dolphin on it. This is the evolution of an ethic. The kid, in this case, is ahead of the mother and is educating her. The evolution of the education is very important. I introduced the first environmental education act, and Congress passed it in 1970 because that’s the heart of the matter.

NR&E: What still needs to be done? And what are your top priorities in the next few years?

Nelson: You can name a thousand things, of course. If you ask ecologists, they will say the most important issue is exponential population growth. I would say equally, or more, important is the absence of an environmental ethic in our culture. Until we are guided by an environmental ethic, we won’t have the foresight, the courage, the determination, the will to make those decisions we are going to have to make. Many of them will tum out to be unpopular. The major challenge from now on, though it hasn’t been visible and hasn’t been talked about much—the challenge for this and all future generations is to forge and maintain a sustainable society. That’s the whole business. That’s the most important challenge. Meeting it involves these thousand other things—soil erosion, hazardous waste, pollution, or what have you. A sustainable society is defined as a society that manages to meet its own needs without depriving future generations of the opportunity to meet their needs. There is no sustainable society in the world today, unless you would count some small native societies in remote places. All nations are consuming their capital and counting it as profit, counting it as income; that’s not a sustainable situation.

NR&E: Working toward a balanced environmental budget, if you will, is that what you mean?

Nelson: Yes, that’s what it is all about. You can’t pollute the air and water, erode the soil, destroy the forests, and eliminate biodiversity, and expect to do it forever. That is not a sustainable course. No society doing that is sustainable; pretty soon you run out. We have got to be a society that lives off the interest and not our capital. All these resources are our capital.

NR&E: What you’re saying is, what we’re doing now, it’s like burning our own house board by board to keep warm—pulling it down, board by board. NR&E readership has about 15,000 environmental and natural resource and energy lawyers, who defend, who prosecute, who are involved in client counseling. There’s some discretion, where we draw lines, when we advise the client. Any advice?

Nelson: I don’t know if I have specific advice on counseling the client. Naturally, I hope people are represented honorably and in the best interest of the country. If the interests of the country conflict with the interests of the corporation, I hope the interest of the country would come first, but whether it does or not, who knows? But I don’t have advice on counseling lawyers on how to counsel their clients.

NR&E: In your travels around the country you’ve been speaking a lot about U.S. population growth. Isn’t that mainly a Third World problem?

Nelson: That’s what a lot of people think. And it’s certainly true that rates of population growth in those countries are scary. But the United States is the fastest growing industrialized country. In 1990 there were more births in this country—4.2 million—than in any year since 1962. Assuming you and I talk today for an hour, there will be 310 more Americans by the time you walk out my door.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big number. But there are a lot of hours in a year, and there’s a lot of compounding. At our current growth rate, the U.S. population will double by the middle of the century that’s about to begin. That’s another 260 million people. Where are you going to put them? How are you going to satisfy their needs? You’ve got to figure on a doubling of the infrastructure. There will be twice as many cars, trucks, planes, parking lots, and freeways. Twice as many houses and apartment buildings. Twice as many schools and hospitals. Twice as many prisons and reform schools. In short, twice as much of everything, including traffic jams and crime on the streets.

We need a major public debate on this issue. How many people can we support? How do we make sure we don’t exceed that number? These are tough questions. But the longer we delay taking them on, the tougher they’ll be to handle. Congress ought to begin a comprehensive series of hearings to get this issue before the American people. Perhaps it’s an issue that the ABA’s environmental lawyers can get behind.

NR&E: With today’s 20/20 hindsight, what could or should have been done differently over these 25 years? Anything?

Nelson: Basically, we have moved a long way and done a lot of the right things. Unfortunately, oversight by Congress of the laws and their effectiveness, and the management of the laws by the executive branch have been inadequate. This is a matter that requires constant attention. The president’s recognized it; he’s appointed a committee to start looking at the rules and regulations. But these shortcomings have been seized upon by those who oppose environmental laws. They point to excessive bureaucracy, excessive paperwork, unnecessary intrusions by the government to justify an assault on laws that have made this country a better place to live and conduct business.

I’ve looked at some of the paperwork, and I could eliminate a huge percentage of it. As a matter of fact, I wrote a letter to President Carter’s Domestic Council in 1980. I suggested that to blunt the whole attack he should select three industries, say paper, steel, autos. Take three plants from each—take a papermill in California, one in Wisconsin, one in Maine, and call in all the managers and say, “Look, we want to help you escape all this paperwork. We don’t care about hearing from you at all. All you have to do is meet the legal standard. We will come by and check on you, and if you aren’t meeting the standard, you go back to the paperwork. Well, of course that didn’t happen. It would have made front pages all over the country if they’d done it. (Governor Reagan, at the time was running around saying he’d get the government off your back.) A lot of complaints come from people who don’t give a damn about the environment and don’t want to have any expense added to their manufacturing process. They want the right to pollute the river and the air and do other damage. I have no sympathy with that. Because the government has failed to limit paperwork over the years, it’s been easier for those opposed to environmental protection to go after good laws. I’d say there are two tracks running on Capitol Hill. There are people who believe in all the laws but would like to reduce the unnecessary bureaucracy and interference. Then there are those who don’t believe in the laws and use, as a sledgehammer, some examples of excessive paperwork to clobber the laws. We have got to be smart enough to make the distinction. One of the House Republicans who has a responsible position asked, “Why did they get rid of DDT?” That was crazy.

NR&E: Today?

Nelson: Oh yes. I can’t remember his name. He was in the extermination business. I think he is chair of a subcommittee that’s got some responsibility here, but that’s what he said. I think mostly it means he’s ignorant. He doesn’t understand what DDT was doing to all the raptor birds—bald eagles to falcons—or fish, or all kinds of things that were going on. So, there are a lot of people who take these stands saying, out of ignorance the laws are unnecessary. “We don’t have to have this now,” they claim.

NR&E: There’s this notion that we are imposing a pound of prevention to get an ounce of cure. A lot of people, some, so-called commonsense zealots, have this message and it sells in Peoria. How do you respond? Education is one thing. . . .

Nelson: Oh yes, the more people understand about the environment, the more concerned they become. That’s evolving every single day, month, year. We need to show how these laws improve the lives of everyday people and are vital to the long-term health of our economy. At the same time, we need to pursue ways to make these laws work better. The environmental enemies pushing buttons in Congress now will do some temporary damage. There’s no question about that. They’ll get some laws passed that are pretty poor. They aren’t doing a good job of holding hearings; they don’t want extensive hearings, and they don’t want the other side heard. And so they are rushing through bills that in the past would have taken one or two or three years to deal with. That’s no way to govern.

NR&E: One of the ongoing debates is between design criteria and performance standards. It’s like your example, take three factories from different industries and say, “Just bake a good, clean cake. We’re not going to give you the recipe and you don’t have to write out the forms telling us that you’re complying with that recipe. Just get the results, achieve the performance standards, as opposed to extensive, or needlessly burdensome, design criteria or recipes . . .”

Nelson: Well, one of the problems we have to consider is the instinctive opposition from the interests affected by legislation. Every single piece of environmental legislation that has been proposed in my lifetime—in my own state or in Congress—has been opposed by every industry affected by it. I introduced the first bill to force automobile mileage efficiency up to 27.5 miles a gallon. I wasn’t denounced by General Motors or by Chrysler. They went to American Motors because there was an American Motors plant in Wisconsin. Then they got people on the Hill to denounce me and say the technology wasn’t available. They fought emission standards, and every other proposal saying, “The technology’s not here,” “It costs too much,” “It isn’t worth doing.” Every single proposal. In 1974, at a hearing on increasing the mileage efficiency, a Ford lobbyist testified that if his company had to meet the 1985 standard of 27 1/2, Ford’s product line would have to consist of all sub-Pinto-sized cars or some mix of vehicles ranging from sub-sub-compact to, he said, “perhaps a Maverick.” That wasn’t even close to what eventually happened. When environmentalists are accused of crying wolf, predictions like that one should be played back to show how industries are prone to hyperbole. Because Congress was not scared off by such predictions, the average U.S. car now goes twice as far on a gallon of gasoline. That means we import 2.5 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and consumers spend some $40 billion a year less on gas. Another benefit is reduced emissions. Congress and regulators often end up drafting laws tighter and tighter so the people who don’t agree with them can’t avoid them through some loophole and have to comply. Well, a lot of that has happened.

NR&E: You mean you can’t just say, “Build a car that doesn’t pollute.” You’ve got to . . .

Nelson: You’ve got to set some standards. I think there’s lots of room for more flexibility. Let’s say you’ve got 10,000 companies out there making widgets. People in those companies know better than anybody else how to make that widget most efficiently and in the most environmentally friendly way. You ought to say to them, “Okay, you’re manufacturing this and you are emitting this . . . this industry emits this much pollution. We’ve got to get it down and keep bringing it down. You can adopt the best available technology or you come up with a better way to do it and we’ll be happy.”

NR&E: Do you think that Congress is micromanaging the statutes too much and too many of the regulatory details?

Nelson: Well, I’m not an authority on all these things. Lots of people would say the agencies go too far. Congress passed a piece of legislation in which they allowed some benefits to employers to induce them to employ high school students for twenty hours a week. I was chair of the Small Business Committee, and we found that few businesses were taking advantage. So, the chief of staff of the committee brings in the form. It was four pages of fine print with every conceivable question you could think of—four pages worth. We sat down and eliminated every question except four. We put them on a postcard and sent it to the Secretary of Labor—a nice guy—and I said, “Here is the form you are requiring.” He had never seen it though it was drafted by his own department. I said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. Who needs to know all this junk? Here’s four questions on a postcard; that’s the way they ought to be able to answer it.”

In about ten days I got an answer back from him saying, “Dear Gaylord, you are wrong. We need only three questions.” So, this stuff happens.

NR&E: So, you are saying you can’t delegate it all to the agency, you need oversight . . .

Nelson: It’s a problem we’ve got to work on. You can’t just pass a law and say you have to meet this standard. Let’s say you’ve got 20,000–50,000 companies, out there, big and small. If you are going to inspect every single one of them to see if they are in compliance, it’s a problem for the OSHA inspectors. There are lots of plants that have never been inspected, and some probably get inspected once every five or ten years. Then you have got to build an internal operation in which, say, the labor unions and the management are continually talking and if there is a dangerous situation the labor unions can complain. There are a lot of things that can be done and have to be done.

NR&E: Perhaps figure out how to put some of these environmental efforts on automatic pilot and build them into the normal business planning?

Nelson: Sure. There are so many things you can do. You take the smokestacks on one of the plants out in Montana. They’ve got meters. They can meter what’s coming out of that stack. You require them to send you the tape, that sort of thing. There are lots of ways. The argument is we ought to get rid of any paperwork and red tape we don’t need, but we must have some way to make sure people comply.

NR&E: What do you see as the most serious threat facing our environment?

Nelson: I think the two I mentioned earlier, exponential population growth and the absence of a guiding environmental ethic, which is evolving.

NR&E: Any national land use legislation on the horizon? Of those 29 laws you’ve mentioned earlier, none of them have been a land use bill. Would the Wilderness Society favor it, something like what Congress was considering in 1969 and the early ’70s?

Nelson: No matter how compelling an argument for it, there isn’t any chance in the world that anything like that can pass now. Proper use of the land by zoning is useful. But, you get into awful fights about trying to have federal zoning. On the other hand, incentives that encourage certain types of land use have some potential.

NR&E: How do you and the Wilderness Society figure you are going to get your message across and your agenda accomplished, given the recent antiregulatory atmosphere?

Nelson: It’s not easy. During the early months of the new Congress, the antienvironmental activity in Congress received relatively little attention. The media focused on school lunches, welfare, assault weapons, and the like. Once people catch on to what this new Congress is up to and what the impact is likely to be the water, air, and land, I think a lot of the antienvironmental bills will be derailed—or at least will be vastly improved.

The Wilderness Society is working hard to get the word out on how the proposed changes will hurt our quality of life in this country. Just for example, we have economists who can make the case that a healthy environment is a prerequisite if we are to have a healthy economy over the long term. Along with other environmental groups and organizations in other fields (including churches), we are taking such information to grassroots activists, the media, the White House, and anyone else who can make a difference in the outcome. The Wilderness Society is the only organization that exclusively specializes in federal public land questions; national parks, forests, wildlife refugees, BLM lands. Overpressuring of these lands is important. If you double the population that will be basically the end of the national parks as we know them. They’ll be kind of modified theme parks, modified Disneylands, and stuff like that.

NR&E: Given the current emphasis on fiscal restraints, state, local, and federal, how do you keep the focus on the environment, the environmental laws, and their enforcement with limited government resources?

Nelson: It’s not easy. One thing we try to point out is that the federal government actually subsidizes a lot of activities that damage the environment. On national forests and other lands that belong to all Americans, much of the logging, mining, and grazing that go on is underwritten by taxpayers. The tab we pick up runs to about $2 billion a year. If we phased out these activities in places where they do unacceptable damage or lose money, and often they do both, we would have more funds for programs that protect the environment. We also need to illustrate that purchase, and hence protection, of lands with high recreational or wildlife value is a sound investment. Which is better for our nation’s future: allowing resort development in wetlands and alongside national parks or keeping those areas in their natural condition? There’s no factory making land in this country; we need to protect the best of what’s left for future generations. Those are investments that pay dividends forever.

NR&E: Any better ways to manage our existing wilderness? That pressure, as you said. How do we manage it better?

Nelson: There’s a simple rule to be followed. That is wilderness is the wilderness and if you think it is worth preserving, as I do, then you don’t allow any pressure beyond what that wilderness can tolerate. That might mean you permit only one-half, one-third, one-fourth, one-tenth to go into the wilderness as might want to. If you are going to do what all kinds of people would like to see done, put in walkways, little roads for wheelchairs and snowmobile trails, that is the end of the wilderness that’s all. Fortunately, a very successful organization for people with disabilities, Wilderness Inquiry, is helping lead the fight against doing that. They urge that wilderness be left alone. “We’ll get in and out as best we can, and if we can’t get in, we can’t get in.” That’s their view.

NR&E: In this age of sound bites, high-tech media penetration, and short attention spans, how can grassroots campaigns succeed and serious environmental education continue?

Nelson: It’s a challenge when sometimes complicated issues have to be boiled down to a few seconds. But it can be done, at least in most cases. As for high tech, maybe it’ll be a boon to our cause. I’m not a computer fanatic, by any stretch of the imagination, but I gather that the information superhighway may help us reach a lot of people with a lot of facts. If you can put full-color parks, forests, and wildlife on computer screens—and if before long, people can hear the cry of a wolf and smell the flowers—then maybe you can drive home some of the points that we want to make. This sort of thing should be able to help us energize the grassroots and educate the broader public.

NR&E: Any thoughts on Native Americans and tribal lands? The tribes have been going both ways it seems—some wanting to preserve and some wanting to allow much more development.

Nelson: Some of us romanticize Native Americans and believe that none of them would ever do anything to harm the land or anything else that is part of the natural world. I believe that their record is a whole lot better than non-Natives’, but there will be times when a tribal government will decide to do something that some people consider bad for the environment. When a desperately poor tribe is offered a chance to make millions by allowing a dump to be put on its reservation, it’s easy for outsiders to take a holier-than-thou attitude and be critical. By and large, Native Americans are far more likely to take a long-term, protect-the-environment position. In Alaska and Canada, for instance, the Gwich’in Indians are working with us to prevent oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s the place where a major caribou herd migrates each spring to bear its young. The Gwich’in depend on the caribou for food and other needs. They are “the caribou people.” They don’t want us to do to the caribou what we did to the buffalo on the high plains in the previous century. We should be listening to the Gwich’in.

NR&E: Twenty-five years, 50 years from now, people will look back at all your accomplishments, at your work. What would you like to be remembered for most?

Nelson: I’ve never given that any thought and I don’t think I’ll start thinking about it.

NR&E: Thank you, Senator Nelson. It was an honor. Good luck.