HAS BEEN OUR MOST ENVIRONMENTALLY AWARE PRESIDENT?
February 24, 2013
Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have all been linked to the holiday now known
as Presidents' Day because of their unparalleled contributions to the country.
Suppose we identified U.S. presidents based on their positive impacts on the environment?
What names would emerge?
President Ulysses S. Grant would certainly get a nod for establishing Yellowstone,
in 1872, as the world's first national park. That ensured that the area would
be preserved "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" of the United
States by protecting wildlife, timber, and mineral deposits in their "natural
condition." Sounds like the goals many conservation organizations have for
our remaining wild lands and waters.
Teddy Roosevelt is acknowledged by environmentally oriented groups as the front-runner
in conservation. He started the U.S. Forest Service and developed the concept
of the national park system to protect wildlife and natural habitats. Roosevelt
was the youngest U.S. president and the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize;
he was also responsible for the building of the Panama Canal. But his environmental
and conservation accomplishments are his most impressive contributions to our
country. The Grand Canyon was among more than 70 natural areas he designated as
national monuments, wildlife refuges or national parks. Roosevelt also promoted
the concept that citizens who engage in recreational hunting and fishing are the
nation's foremost conservationists. That his face is on Mount Rushmore with Washington,
Jefferson and Lincoln is fitting.
Another tribute to this champion of conservation is Theodore Roosevelt Island,
a memorial managed by the National Park Service. The island is located in the
middle of the Potomac River between Arlington, Va., and the Watergate Hotel. The
name Watergate is inextricably linked to another president, Richard M. Nixon,
who turns out to have been one of the most environmentally influential U.S. presidents.
Roosevelt recognized the contributions of outdoorsmen in protecting the country's
natural environments. In 1972 Nixon went a step further when he signed a proclamation
designating the fourth Saturday of September as National Hunting and Fishing Day.
Nixon urged all citizens "to join with outdoor sportsmen in the wise use
of our natural resources and in insuring their proper management for the benefit
of future generations."
1970 Nixon made an even more notable proclamation: an environmental pledge "to
repair the damage already done and to establish new criteria to guide us in the
future." A memo he received from the President's Advisory Council on Executive
Organization recommended "that key anti-pollution programs be merged into
an Environmental Protection Administration, a new independent agency of the Executive
Branch." Nixon heeded the advice and honored his pledge by creating the Environmental
Protection Agency. The EPA's mission is "to protect human health and to safeguard
the natural environment--air, water, and land--upon which life depends."
Nixon environmental milestone came in 1973 when he signed legislation creating
the most powerful environmental law our country has ever set forth: the Endangered
Species Act. Likewise the country's most significant efforts to curb water and
air pollution came in the form of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water
Act in 1972.
Grant can be considered a visionary for declaring Yellowstone a national park,
an accomplishment that led to international efforts to preserve natural habitats.
Teddy Roosevelt was a century ahead of the times when he said the United States
needed to take a careful look at "what will happen when our forests are gone,
when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when soils have been
. . . washed into the streams, polluting the rivers." His efforts to protect
our natural habitats were admirable. Much-needed environmental regulation was
promulgated during President Nixon's administration, and when we think of him
we should remember his effort to ensure clean air and clean water for all of us.
These three men contributed substantially to the environmental health of the country.
We need for all of our presidents to emulate them.
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