Gaylord Nelson

It’s worth recalling that Gaylord Nelson was right on the pressing social issues of his time, be it the Vietnam War and civil rights or protections for workers. It’s just that his environmental legacy casts such a long shadow that we forget much of the rest of his work.


One of my fondest memories from long-ago reporting days was spending time with U.S. senator and Wisconsin legend Gaylord Nelson, still remembered for being the father of Earth Day and one of the architects of the modern environmental movement.

After a day on the campaign trail back in 1968, when he was running for a second six-year Senate term, Nelson would often hold "court" with reporters and others in his entourage to talk about his love of Wisconsin and how it was up to its people to make sure this special state's unmatched beauty will be protected forever.

He had already forged his environmental bona fides as governor of Wisconsin by enacting, along with several other major pieces of legislation, the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program to save several of the state's pristine areas. Then during his first term in the Senate he convinced President John F. Kennedy to embrace environmental protection as a national priority, eventually protecting hundreds of unique lands and waters, including Wisconsin's acclaimed Apostle Islands.

Nelson always considered the combination of corporate greed and pandering politicians to be the biggest danger to our priceless natural resources — trees, lakes, rivers, wildlife habitats and scenic landscapes — that once destroyed can never be replaced. Privately, he'd say that if he had his way he'd preserve Wisconsin just the way it is for its people and keep out those who want to exploit it. They can go to states that don't care about their natural resources, he'd say. Good riddance.

Yet he was not an anti-development zealot. The state did quite well economically under Nelson's gubernatorial tutelage, thank you. Those who wanted to develop in Wisconsin were welcome as long as they agreed to follow the rules and respect the state's uniqueness. We want healthy growth in Wisconsin, but we're not going to give away the store to get it.

My, how that's all changed today.

Regardless of which side you take in the Foxconn saga, the willingness of the Walker administration to barter away the state's time-honored environmental protections for what could be an elusive promise of jobs from a corporation with a reputation for reneging has got to be troubling on the surface.

Even if we overlooked encumbering state and local government by forgoing taxes, including 15 years of property tax exemptions that would have to be picked up by individual property owners, granting carte blanche to an international corporate behemoth to have its way with the state's natural resources is a slap in the face to environmental leaders like Gaylord Nelson and world-renowned naturalists who came before him — John Muir, Aldo Leopold and others.

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Plus there's the hundreds of Wisconsin firms that have followed the rules of protecting our state's waterways, wetlands, plants and creatures.

In the interest of attracting a multibillion-dollar corporation that promises to add about as many jobs as Verona's Epic did following all the rules and with the aid of a modest TIF, we're about to open the door to reckless regard for all that Wisconsin holds dear.

We desperately need to keep that door closed.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.