I know the colors red and blue figure prominently in politics, but what about green? With all eyes on Washington, D.C. and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, we've all been talking about the very huge challenges facing this new administration, not the least of which is the environment. President Obama has aggressive energy and environmental plans and has even vowed to make the White House green. His environmental stance piqued my curiosity: how did our past United States presidents stack up in the area of environmental change and conservation?
The most recent president prior to Obama to embrace environmental change was Bill Clinton (1992-2000). During his administration, environmental policies were more stringent and environmental quality improved. Most important among the new policies were the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ambient ozone and particulate matter, issued by the EPA in July, 1997. Natural resource policy during the Clinton years was heavily weighted toward environmental protection. Environmental quality improved overall during the decade, continuing a trend that started in the 1970s with President Jimmy Carter (1976-1980).
President Carter (who installed a solar water heating system in the White House in 1979, which was later removed by another administration) lobbied for the creation and passage of environmental laws. From the first year of his presidency he was active in environmental issues. 1977 saw the creation of the Department of Energy, as well as the passage of the Soil and Water Conservation Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and amendments on the Clean Air Act which helped set clean air standards. The next year, Congress passed the National Energy Act, the Antarctic Conservation Act, and the Endangered American Wilderness Act.
In 1980 the Superfund legislation was passed, giving the EPA the funds and responsibility to clean up abandoned toxic waste dumps, and the passage of the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation conserved more than 100 million acres and 26 rivers in Alaska.
President Richard Nixon (1968-1974) signed some of the most important environmental legislation in U.S. history into law. In 1970 he signed the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency. 1972 was a banner year for environmental legislation. Here's a list of some of the bills passed that year: the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Ocean Dumping Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungide, Rodenticide Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. The rest of Nixon's term saw the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1932-1945) had a great environmental impact, following in the footsteps of his cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt. FDR's most important contribution to American environmentalism was the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was intended to help decrease unemployment during the Great Depression as part of FDR's "New Deal". More than 2.5 million people served in the CCC from 1933 to 1942. They planted millions of trees, opened summer camps, and generally improved America's infrastructure and environment. Both the Soil Conservation Service and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act were passed during FDR's time as president. And First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn in 1943, inspiring millions by her example.
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1900-1908) is more famous for his environmental actions than any other president in history. A committed outdoorsman, he made conservation of America's natural resources a cornerstone of his policy. He repeatedly lobbied Congress to pass measures for the conservation of forests, water, soil and wildlife.
Roosevelt is mistakenly credited for the creation of the National Park Service, which was actually created by Woodrow Wilson in 1916. What Roosevelt created was the National Wildlife Refuge System. He designated Pelican Island, Florida, the first National Wildlife Refuge, in 1903. He proceeded to place about 230 million acres of land under federal protection during his presidency. This was made easier by the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gave a president the ability to designate areas as national monuments without Congressional approval.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln (1860-1865) established the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At the time more than 90% of Americans were farmers, so this was an important and powerful department. The USDA still has a major impact on our environment, as does U.S. agriculture.
Lincoln also authorized the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. He signed one of the first conservation laws, which helped lay the foundations of the national park service. In 1864, Lincoln signed a bill which established protection for the Yosemite Valley in California. The aim of the bill was the protection of the valley's trees, an idea that had gained support when a massive and famous redwood called the Mother of the Forest was felled in 1851, sparking outrage across the country.
While some of the environmental challenges Washington faces today may be new, the idea of environmental stewardship in the presidency certainly is not.
Low Impact Living
AEI-Brookings Joint Center