From the Driftless Region to the Northwoods, the heartland state of Wisconsin has given America some of its greatest hunters, anglers, and conservationists. John Muir, who would influence Theodore Roosevelt to create what would become the system of National Forests, was raised in Portage. Sigurd F. Olson, the writer and adventurer who fought for the creation of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area and helped to write the Wilderness Act of 1964, was raised in Ashland. The mighty force that was Aldo Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac, arguably the most powerful statement of humankind’s relationship to the land ever written, in his cabin in Baraboo.   

A hiking trail in the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness.
A hiking trail in the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness. NPS

But for Wisconsin’s modern-day hunters and fishermen—and speaking simply from a practical, boots-on-the-ground perspective—few Wisconsinites had a greater impact than Gaylord Nelson. Born in Clear Lake in 1916, Nelson served in the U.S. Army in the Okinawa campaign during World War II, was a state legislator, was elected Wisconsin’s governor from 1958-1962, and then U.S. Senator from 1963 to 1981. Nelson would always say that he absorbed his love of the outdoors “by osmosis,” growing up canoeing and wandering the woods around his home. He acted on that in the most pragmatic way of all: As governor, he pioneered the visionary Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program, which used a penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes to add more than one million acres of public land and lake and river access, ensuring that Wisconsin hunters and fishermen, and their descendants, could keep doing what they love—in a more crowded and uncertain future. It worked.

Sixty-plus years later, Wisconsin is a powerhouse in the outdoors, with more than a million fishing licenses sold every year, and over 820,000 hunting licenses, supporting a booming outdoor economy valued at more than $7.3 billion. During his years in the Senate, Nelson was a crucial supporter of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and most of the potent environmental legislation of his time. He was among the first to propose permanent protections and public access for the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, and worked for years on the effort, which culminated when President Richard Nixon signed the legislation, establishing what has become the ice-fishing and kayaking mecca—the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (which also includes the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness) in 1970. 

But today, and especially outside of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson is best-known for his role in creating the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. 

Solving the “Fundamental Problem”

Earth Day started out as a “teach-in” in the hippie parlance of the day (it was set on April 22 because that was a day between Spring Break and final exams), where college students would focus on the topic of the environment for one day. There was a lot to focus on at the time. The blowout of an oil well off Santa Barbara, California, on January 28, 1969, dumped 100,000 barrels of oil into the Pacific, killing birds and sea life, fouling iconic beaches. It was America’s first major oil spill. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught fire on June 22, 1969—not for the first time, but Americans paid attention to it this time, and were horrified at the condition of that river, and many others. Lake Erie had been declared a “dead sea” by researchers, a term that landed on the front page of newspapers across the nation, combined with the news of the Velsicol Chemical Company in Memphis dumping pesticides into the Mississippi River that caused massive fish kills and threatened the drinking water of millions. Smog broke records in New York and Los Angeles. 

The Vietnam War was dragging on and on; college campuses were in a state of near revolt. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Robert Kennedy that same year. Riots swept American cities. Of all the problems that faced the U.S., the citizens seemed convinced that the cleanup and restoration of the nation’s environment was one that could be addressed, and one that was knotted up with many of the others. As Theodore Roosevelt had said in 1907, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.” That problem, we could solve.

Even thought Earth Day was conceived and promoted as a “teach-in,” it turned out that, on the selected day of April 22, more than 20 million Americans, from every walk of life, took to the streets, to parks and small-town squares, to ballfields and stadiums, to demand that political leaders and governments take action against the polluters and against the policies of inaction and that were causing the ruin of our lands and waters and air. An estimated one million people gathered in New York’s Central Park alone. In a very real sense, the American environmental movement was born, a new, more diverse and more overtly political movement than the one begun by Roosevelt, Grinnell, Pinchot, and the other great conservationists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new movement was the most successful of its kind in the history of the world in demanding and getting real change. 

From the Clean Water Act of 1972 to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 to the Federal Land and Policy Management Act of 1976 that changed public land management and brought an end to giving away public lands under the old Homestead Act, it was a kind of orderly revolution in the way America dealt with environmental challenges. And by any measure, it worked. The air was cleaner, rivers were far less polluted, drinking water supplies were protected. Wildlife and fisheries were restored. Public lands were kept in public hands. The U.S. became the beacon, and the model, for nations across the world that wanted to protect their lands and waters.  

Together, hunters and anglers were the driving force behind almost all of the major wildlife restoration laws of the early 20th century, and of the protection of public lands that made the restoration efforts of big-game species like elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep possible. From license sales to the 1937 Pittman-Robertson tax on firearm and ammunition, from the creation of the Duck Stamps that fund the National Wildlife Refuge system to the 1950 Dingell-Johnson tax on fishing tackle, hunters and anglers were, and are, also the source of most of the funding for American conservation.

But in the years following World War II, as the U.S. became the largest economy in the world, with booming industries and mining, timber harvests, population growth, and urban sprawl, these early and hard-won conservation triumphs were not enough. And hunters and fishermen, not surprisingly, were, again, among the first to recognize that. 

Prominent angler-entrepreneur Ray Scott, who founded the Bass Anglers’ Sportsman’s Society in 1967, became one of the nation’s foremost advocates for stopping the industrial poisoning of the rivers and creeks that he loved (and depended on for his bass tournaments) in the South, filing hundreds of lawsuits against polluters and mounting a media campaign to rally fishermen and the general public to support clean water laws. Dyed-in-the wool outdoorsmen like George Reiger and Ted Trueblood, writing in Field & Stream and other magazines, relentlessly reported on the impacts of ill-advised dams, overharvest of timber, loss of wetlands, and the pollution of lands and waters that threatened the future of hunting and fishing. It seemed like, for a short time in our history, Americans—conservatives, liberals, hippies, and hardhats—were united in demanding cleaner water and air, wildlife conservation, and public lands.

Certainly, nobody has benefited more from these federal laws passed in the 1970s—and from the results of the environmental movement—than anglers and hunters and others who love the outdoors. The Clean Water Act specifically says that the goal of the law was to make all American waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1983. (We achieved the halfway mark of that goal, and now are slipping again—mostly due to manure and chemical fertilizer runoff, which are harder to address than a pipe pouring toxic effluent into a creek.) The laws passed for federal public land management forced the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to consider the impact of its projects and developments on fisheries and wildlife for the first time. The Clean Air Act set the stage for the control of mercury-pollution from coal-fired power plants that was poisoning fish and rendering them too toxic for human use. All of these laws, and more, were a direct result of the grassroots American environmental movement that showed its power on that first Earth Day.

And yet, in all of my life, I have known precious few hunters and anglers who celebrate Earth Day or have attended any Earth Day gatherings or even acknowledged that it exists. This remains true even as Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020 and has become a worldwide phenomenon.    

Maybe it was the urban-centered focus of the first Earth Day that failed to engage hunters and fishermen, many of whom are, or were then, living in rural America. Maybe it was what some saw as an unsavory connection with the college campuses and their unrest—the hippies, the protestors, the liberals, the anti-war movement. There is no doubt that the original Earth Day attracted more people from the left side of the political spectrum than the right, and this trend has continued. 

I can remember in the 1980s when the term “watermelon” was used for anyone who advocated for protecting the environment—“green on the outside, red [communist] on the inside”—despite the fact that communist countries have some of the most polluted lands and waters on Earth, and it is only in functioning democratic republics with representative government that environmental protection even exists. 

Maybe it was because, for conservatives, who distrusted federal power, the barrage of federal environmental laws passed in the 1970s was simply infuriating—and perhaps doubly so because the laws were so clearly effective. It required the power of the federal government to do what the individual states simply could not or would not do—and still will not—all these years later. The proof is in the steelhead runs in the Cuyahoga River. It’s in the safe drinking water coming out of the faucet in your kitchen. It’s in the bass and crappie filets in your fryer, and the duck sausage in your skillet. This is a tough pill to swallow for many of us.

I’ll be the first to recognize that hunting, trapping, and other traditionally conservative pursuits have not been explicitly welcomed by the groups that rally to the protection of the environment on Earth Day. We may all value a clean and healthy environment, abundant wildlife, and room for our children to roam and play and learn and become strong—but many of us, emphatically, do not view the world in the same way, and we do not necessarily agree on the means to achieve those goals. The awful litmus tests of politics have divided us yet again and rendered us all less powerful. 

Whatever the causes, the reality is that more-conservative hunters and anglers have not just avoided participating in Earth Day. We, whose ancestors were the flag-bearers of the conservation movement, have become increasingly absent from the debate over protecting out American environment. There has been a resurgence of support for public lands, as the threats became painfully obvious. In 2015, there were 37 bills passed in 11 states to either privatize public lands outright or transfer them to states, which would surely sell them. That got our attention.

But somewhere in the past 50 years, we have allowed the protection of our lands and waters—a basic foundational principle of patriotic pride, a bedrock example of conservative belief—to become almost entirely associated with liberalism and the left. We haven’t demanded that our states pass their own Clean Water Acts or laws to protect wetlands that are crucial to waterfowl or tributary creeks where trout and other gamefish spawn, and without which clean rivers do not exist. We haven’t held our state agencies to the high standards we take for granted at the federal level, even as many of us scorn the “feds.” We are left depending on federal laws passed almost 50 years ago, at a unique moment in U.S. history, to hold off the whirlwind. It’s a perverse situation, and a dangerous one if we hope to pass on the traditions of hunting and fishing to our children in that same increasingly crowded world that Gaylord Nelson saw coming in 1950s Wisconsin, and acted, successfully, to address.

An Earth Day for Hunters and Anglers

So I propose a new path forward, one that Gaylord Nelson, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd F. Olson, and maybe even that radical old preservationist John Muir would appreciate:

Let’s have our own Earth Day on April 22, and celebrate it in our own way. Let the more mainstream and urban environmental groups gather in the city parks, and we’ll take the rivers and the woods, the high country and the swamps, our own backyards and back forty. Come in camouflage and Carhartts. We’ll sear backstraps and turkey breasts, fry yellow perch in bear grease, and talk guns and mules and trotlines.

It won’t be a “teach-in,” but we’ll teach our sons and daughters and grandkids how to shoot a rifle and tie an Improved Clinch Knot and a bowline, how to navigate with map and compass, how to build a fire. We’ll teach them a strong, sensible, disciplined life based on what is real and true. Clean waters, swimmable and fishable, with a filet knife and an old grill over an open fire for shore lunch. We’ll tell campfire stories of Roosevelt and Leopold, of the bison and the whitetail, of the Cuyahoga and the Mississippi, and we’ll remind them that none of this ever happened without a fight and none of it goes on without passionate engagement and decisive action. American hunters and fishermen were the greatest conservation leaders the world has ever seen, and we will be again, a force pragmatic and unstoppable.

What protects our land and water and hunting and fishing is the same thing that protects the nation that makes it all possible: We must be participants in a participatory democratic republic. Passivity is poison. Division is defeat. On some issues—conservation, clean water and air, hunting, fishing, public lands, wildlife—we will not be divided, nor will we be tricked into battling with those who share our major goals but may differ in the means of achieving them.

Who knows what is at stake better than we do? Nobody. Who better to take the reins of conservation and the American environment than us? Nobody. What better time to begin than right now, April 22—Earth Day? Let’s build it.