Earth Day might have been inspired during a boat tour on the Wolf River from New London to where its waters merge with Lake Poygan in 1969.
In fact, the idea was probably spawned decades earlier when Gaylord Nelson swam with family members in the Little Wolf River as a young boy.
His heritage, Sheldon Bradt on his mother’s side, began in the town of Mukwa, downstream from New London, according to Tom Handschke, whose mother Helen, shared the same blood line.
Mary Bradt married Anton Nelson, a doctor, and served as a nurse when Gaylord was born in Clear Lake in 1916.
Helen’s sister, Evelyn Laib raised her family on the Bradt homestead located near the fountain on County X west of the Northport bridge. Evelyn died recently, shortly after observing her 100th birthday.
Nelson made note of his ties to the area and familial roots during the river tour, recalling the joys of his youth during those times.
The tour, which took place on Sept. 13, 1969, involved 9 of 12 state Assembly Conservation Committee members. It was timely in the wake of a U.S. Senate bill introduced a month earlier by Nelson to curb Erosion Destruction.
Nelson’s bill claimed 300,000 miles of the nation’s waterway was destroying valuable land and cost of removing sediment from channels, harbors and reservoirs cost $250 million a year.
He entered a story from the Sept. 14, 1969 Post-Crescent “Wolf River: Real Jekyll and Hyde” at a hearing on his bill.
“Fremont is a dividing point. Upstream shows the harsh signs of man and erosion, while downstream man has taken steps to prevent the erosion of valuable river banks.”
The story cited several factors observed during the 40-mile trip from New London to Fremont, including cattle wading and drinking from the river.
That was 45 years ago and many improvements have been made to protect river banks.
For better or worse, the Corps of Engineers’ maintenance of the Wolf River became less aggressive and allowed a more natural evolution of the river after that trip.
For years the Corps removed dead falls of trees resulting from natural erosion of banks by the current and dredged sand bars to maintain a channel for boat traffic.
The dead falls were habitat for fish and other water life and also helped slow further erosion of the river bank.
Earth Day began as a teach-in on environmental issues and, at Nelson’s urging, involved President John Kennedy.
It became an official observance on April 22, 1970, when an estimated 20 million people across the country demonstrated in support of saving the environment. Nelson is synonymous with the day.
Earth Day legacy is strong in Wisconsin dating back to Aldo Leopold.
Two governors – Nelson and a predecessor, Warren Knowles – did more than give lip service to environmental issues and preserving resources. Those issues were personal and a priority during their years in government.
Knowles was governor from 1965 to 1971 and led the way in protecting wetlands, fighting water pollution and expanding state parks and forests. He started the Governor’s Fishing Opener in 1968 and died May 1, 1993 while participating in the event.
The Wisconsin Legislature created the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program in 1989 to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation.
The conservation and recreation goals of the Stewardship Program are achieved through the acquisition of land and easements, development of recreational facilities, and restoration of wildlife habitat.
Months after the Wolf River tour I received a large envelope from Nelson at our office along the river in New London. It contained a cherished letter from the senator and a copy of the Congressional Record. He referenced to pages where he had entered the stories I wrote about environmental issues observed during the boat trip.
To me that was Earth Day.