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Conference, concert, exhibits mark 40th anniversary of Earth Day

March 23, 2010 By Tom Sinclair

Environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., bestselling author Margaret Atwood and SC Johnson chair and CEO Fisk Johnson will be among the notables to speak at what promises to be among the nation’s biggest Earth Day celebrations, to be held Tuesday-Wednesday, April 20-21, in Madison.

Wilderness Society president William Meadows, environmental justice scholar Dorceta Taylor, “Planetwalker” John Francis, and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin will join them to mark the day’s 40th anniversary at a public conference at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.

“Earth Day at 40: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions, Past, Present, and Future” is the theme of the conference, hosted by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which is named for Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson.

The celebration includes a free concert, “Ecotones: A Musical Ecology of Wisconsin,” featuring contemporary compositions by musicians from UW–Madison, at 8 p.m. April 20 in Promenade Hall at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Preregistration and payment by Monday, April 12, are required for admission to the conference. Complete details are available at

“The first Earth Day was the largest grassroots demonstration in American history,” says Nelson Institute interim director Gregg Mitman. “It was a remarkable event. Twenty million Americans came together in small towns and major cities to take action.

“Almost overnight, the right to a clean and healthy environment, championed across time and the political spectrum by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson, became the nation’s chorus. A decade of sweeping environmental legislation and reform followed.”

The Earth Day conference will revisit the origins of the environmental movement, survey a broad range of current issues, and envision a more sustainable future. The event also will celebrate 40th anniversary of the Nelson Institute. Several prominent alumni are on the program.

Wisconsin — home to visionaries such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Nelson — has long been a leader in environment and conservation and a laboratory of innovations in environmental ethics, law and policy, institutions and research. The state has made significant contributions to national and global environmental protection and quality of life.

Award winners of the Climate Leadership Challenge, a yearlong UW–Madison student competition for ideas to reduce the impacts of climate change, will be announced on the second day of the Earth Day conference. Prizes in the competition are valued at $100,000. The first beneficiaries of a new undergraduate scholarship program in environmental studies at UW–Madison also will be introduced.

A number of Earth Day spinoff activities also are planned in Madison schools and the community.

“Planetwalker” John Francis will speak to students at Blackhawk Middle School on April 21 before leading them on a walk to Cherokee Marsh to gather soil and water samples, observe wildlife, view Indian mounds, discuss the area’s history and write about their experiences.

Students from the Nelson Institute also will help three local after-school clubs create outdoor art projects with natural materials that will be photographed for a display at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Baraboo.

The Wisconsin Historical Society, in partnership with the Nelson Institute, is hosting a special exhibit about Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in downtown Madison and a second exhibit, about Gaylord Nelson’s life and career, at the society’s headquarters on Library Mall. Both exhibits open this month and close in June.

The Nelson Institute and the historical society also have launched a Web site, “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement,” at