Tia Nelson:The climate change champion

Nurturing the environment is in Nelson's blood
Tia Nelson:The climate change champion
Sharon Vanorny
Tia Nelson

One of the ironies of this story is that conservationist Tia Nelson was accused of being obsessed with climate change at a time when she had pretty much left it behind.

“I was not expecting to be brought back into the conversation on climate change,” says Tia–daughter of Gaylord Nelson, the venerable Wisconsin statesman and Earth Day founder. “I had walked away from that conversation.”

It was early 2015, a decade into her job as executive secretary of Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. “A dream job,” she says.

Tia administered a small (nine-employee) agency with a big mission: managing a billion-dollar fund and caretaking some 80,000 acres of school trust land, the revenue from which helps fund public school libraries. Established in the state constitution in 1848, it was not an agency that ever generated much controversy.

That changed with the November 2014 election. The three-member agency board–Tia’s bosses at that time–is made up of Wisconsin’s attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state.

Matt Adamczyk, the newly elected Republican state treasurer, began peppering Tia with requests for agency records. He asked for and received hundreds of emails, phone records, leave records and agency materials. Before he was sworn in, he demanded that she take her name off the agency stationery and end the agency’s subscription to The New York Times.

In April 2015, the board voted 2-1 to forbid Tia and her staff from talking about climate change on the job, “even though there was no indication they were doing so,” as the Wisconsin State Journal noted at the time. Adamczyk had questioned whether Tia could serve the agency in a netural capacity, given her past advocacy of global warming issues.

On returning to Wisconsin in 2004 after 17 years with the Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C.–10 of those years as director of the climate change program–she returned to Wisconsin to focus on work not directly related to climate (though she did serve on a state global warming task force in 2007).

The public lands job was the perfect fit, until it wasn’t. “It got more bizarre and more hostile,” Tia says of the intense scrutiny.

In summer 2015–after shepherding her agency through the state budget process with its staff and funding intact–Tia had dinner with Frank Burgess, founder of the hugely successful Madison Investment Advisors, who was interested in having Nelson join his Outrider Foundation, which Burgess had recently converted from a family foundation to a private one. Outrider’s goal is to educate people in a nonpartisan manner on issues of global significance.

Tia resigned her public lands post and signed on as Outrider’s managing director for climate. At the same time, national security expert Tara Drozdenko joined Outrider as managing director for nuclear policy and nonproliferation.

It’s still a new venture–furniture in Outrider’s East Washington Avenue office was installed last fall–and Nelson, while a little surprised to be back in the climate change universe, is up for the challenge.

The idea of nurturing the environment is in her blood. When Gaylord was elected governor in 1958, Tia was 2.
In his biography of Gaylord, “The Man from Clear Lake,” Bill Christofferson related a story of when Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor and 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, spent the night at the governor’s mansion in Maple Bluff. Tia woke Stevenson at 4 a.m., distraught because she had neglected to kiss him good night. The oversight was corrected immediately by a no doubt groggy Stevenson. The next morning, he told Tia’s mom, Carrie Lee, “You have the most beautifully disorganized household I’ve ever seen.”

With Gaylord’s election to the U.S. Senate, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where Tia grew up. She watched her dad struggle to gain traction with his environmental message. Then, in 1970, he called for a teach-in on the issue. Earth Day brought together 20 million people across the U.S.

“When I feel disheartened by the state of our debate on sound public policy to protect our air, water, forests and farms,” Tia says, “I remind myself perseverance is important. My father persevered for years.”

After graduating from UW-Madison’s school of wildlife ecology and a few years of clerking for a committee on natural resources in the state Assembly, Nelson joined the Nature Conservancy.

Running the conservancy’s climate program took her to 25 countries, and she was in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush’s presence signaled the U.S. commitment to help fight global warming. It was a historic moment. But a decade later, Bush’s son’s administration decided against implementing an international treaty on greenhouse gases.

Tia, weary of the travel and battles, came home. She has a vegetable garden behind her house in Maple Bluff and likes few things more than cooking for friends, especially if they bring along an instrument and want to make music with her after dinner.

Her position at Outrider includes travel, but it’s free of the stress from the public lands controversy. She sounds invigorated.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to launch a new educational enterprise that I would have hoped 20 years ago wouldn’t have been needed,” Tia says. “I would have hoped we’d be further along.”

Fortunately, her dad taught her about perseverance.