Earth Day 2020: Celebrating 50 Years of the Nelson Institute

The COVID-19 situation has changed a lot of plans and postponed a lot of events in our lives. One side-effect of this has been to substantially reduce all types of travel, which has in turn reduced air pollution and smog. Instruments that measure seismological changes — tremors in the earth — have detected much greater ‘quietness’ in the past couple weeks.

It should not take a pandemic to improve the environment. Here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’ve been paying attention to the water, land, and air around us for many decades.

Our own Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies has been at the forefront of research since its founding 50 years ago. Historic environmental leaders John Muir and Aldo Leopold have roots at UW-Madison. Restoration ecology emerged as a field of research on our campus, and we are a world leader in wildlife conservation, water resource science, and many more disciplines that promote environmental protection.

In 1970, Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the namesake of our institute, proposed the worldwide environmental holiday, Earth Day, which is now celebrated in 193 countries.

In celebration of this year’s Earth Day, I want you to know about an opportunity to participate in a virtual Earth Day conference sponsored by the Nelson Institute. This conference will be held on Monday, April 20, beginning at 8:30 a.m. You can find out more and register for the conference here.

I also urge you to learn more about the history of the Nelson Institute as it celebrates 50 years by visiting The current On Wisconsin magazine also features a cover story featuring the Nelson Institute.

The Nelson Institute is an interdisciplinary division of the UW-Madison that trains students, performs ground-breaking environmental research, and engages communities across Wisconsin and the world. Its faculty have been critical in helping improve air quality in the U.S., developing fair land tenure policy throughout Latin America, documenting the tumultuous history of the Galapagos Islands and the rich story of African American farming, improving sustainable transportation options in cities, and addressing critical water quality issues on tribal lands.

Nelson alumni serve in leadership roles at organizations like the Nature Conservancy, agencies like the EPA, and companies like Baxter International, Inc. Finally, innovative Wisconsin Idea programs at the Institute include work with farmers, municipal leaders, and communities as they begin to adapt to Wisconsin’s wetter summers and warmer winters.

Here at UW, we have long studied our environment and tried to interpret what that means for our actions and our policies. Our limnologists have monitored Wisconsin’s lakes and streams for decades. Our soil scientists have monitored environmental changes and how they impact soils and crops. And our Extension program has taken this knowledge out across the state. That’s the Wisconsin Idea in action.

I am proud that that UW is a leader in ecological and environmental research and particularly proud of the 50-year history of the Nelson Institute.