Nelson Institute celebrates its 50th anniversary

Environmental milestones abound this year as Earth Day and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies turn 50.
Timeline of nelson institute's activities

Environmental milestones abound this year as Earth Day and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies turn 50. While the 50th anniversary of Earth Day celebrated Wisconsin Governor, U.S. Senator, and Nelson Institute namesake Gaylord Nelson’s vision for a day of environmental teach-ins, the Nelson Institute’s 50th anniversary is a celebration of the Institute’s efforts to provide scientifically sound research on environmental challenges for more than five decades.

When the Institute began in 1970, it was called the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES) and functioned as a comprehensive, independent academic unit on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The Institute’s earliest programs included the Water Resources Management (WRM) graduate program, the Energy Analysis and Policy Certificate program, and the Environmental Studies Certificate program for undergraduate students, all of which continue today. Additionally, research began taking place through the Nelson Institute’s Center for Climatic Research (CCR) as well as in areas surrounding land tenure to environmental monitoring.

In 2002, the Institute for Environmental Studies was renamed for the late Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. In that same decade, the Nelson Institute introduced the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) and the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE). As the Institute grew, so did its offerings and its output of environmental research.

Today, the Nelson Institute continues to be a source of scientifically sounds data on topics ranging from climate change to environmental justice. In fact, this year, Governor Tony Evers issued a proclamation recognizing February 6, 2020 as the official 50th anniversary of the Nelson Institute. To commemorate this occasion, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole visited the Nelson Institute to present the proclamation and participate in a question and answer session with Nelson Institute students. During this session, Lieutenant Governor Barnes expressed his gratitude to the Nelson Institute faculty, staff, and students, highlighting the ways in which the Nelson Institute has worked to provide scientifically sound research on environmental challenges. Lieutenant Governor Barnes also thanked the Nelson Institute for its participation in the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, which seeks to better understand the impacts of climate change on Wisconsin.

As preparations are made for the next 50 years, the Nelson Institute will be exploring new ways to enhance interdisciplinary environmental instruction, research, and outreach at UW–Madison, while expanding the Institute’s integrated approach to learning about the environment.

To learn more about the Nelson Institute 50th anniversary celebration, please visit