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Presidential environmental accomplishments

Occasional Observer

Sometimes our presidents have had a significant effect on the physical character of our country. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson arranged for the United States to purchase from France 828 million sq. mi. west of the Mississippi River for $15,000,000, probably the best real estate deal our country has ever made. 

While Theodore Roosevelt is remembered more as a warrior and big game hunter, his environmental accomplishments were considerable. Under his1906 Antiquities Act, he established the U.S. Forest Service, the first National Bird Preserve at Pelican Island, Fla., and more than 190 million acres of new national forests, parks, and monuments.

Theodore’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the creator of the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Operating from 1933 to 1942, the CCC was an enormously popular jobs program employing over three million men, focussed on the conservation and development of natural resources in rural public lands.

While few remember Richard M. Nixon as an environmentalist, his record on environmental matters was impressive. In 1970 he created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the first central authority overseeing the protection of the environment. Other bills he signed were the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program created the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the National Trails System Act and the Land and Water Conservation Act.

Jimmy Carter expanded the National Park System and the Department of Energy. The Superfund Law (1980) established a fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. At a time when doing so seemed very experimental, Carter had solar heating panels installed on the roof of the White House and in so doing gave a real boost to solar energy development.

The administration of Ronald Reagan was not environmentally friendly. With great fanfare, he had the solar panels Carter had installed on the White House roof removed. Reagan scorned environmentalists and frequently made the false claim that “trees cause pollution.”  

His appointments of James G. Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch (mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) as head of the EPA confirmed the worst fears of environmentalists as both moved quickly to slash budgets, reduce environmental enforcement, and open public lands for mining, drilling, and other private uses. Both secretaries were subsequently forced to resign amid congressional investigations of their performances. But surprisingly, Reagan replaced Gorsuch with William Ruckelshaus, the nation’s much admired original EPA Secretary and EPA staff and environmentalists were greatly relieved.

George H. W. Bush’s term included one memorable environmental accomplishment: enactment of the Montreal Protocol requiring the EPA to ban the use of ozone-harming chemicals that were causing the growing “ozone hole” in the atmosphere that was leading to a dangerous increase of ultraviolet radiation onto the Earth. Like his father, George W. Bush pursued a friendly but modest approach to protecting the environment. However, he did create the nation’s largest Marine National Monument, over 84 million acres, in the Pacific north of Hawaii.

Obama’s environmental victories came mostly through executive orders, many of which were later overturned by Trump, rather than through legislation. But under the Stimulus Law of 2009, more than $90 billion was spent on renewable energy, energy efficiency, green jobs and other environmental programs. Under Obama domestic wind powered electricity generation increased threefold and solar electricity generation thirtyfold. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, he created 29 National Monuments across the country on public lands, varying in size from a single building in New York City to the 1,350,000-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

President Trump disdained environmental protection by the government and insisted that climate change was a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese government. Hostile to regulation, shortly after taking office he issued an executive order that for every new regulation put in place, two had to be eliminated. The New York Times identified more than 100 executive orders that the Trump administration took to weaken environmental protection, a major portion of which involved undoing regulations put in place under Obama. He maligned solar and wind power, favoring fossil fuel industries, particularly coal. He lifted bans on oil and gas exploration in coastal waters, the Arctic, and the National Monuments in Utah, stripping Bears Ears National Monument of 85% of its protected area, and inviting fossil fuel, mining, and logging industries to lease out the discarded portions.

President Biden’s environmental plans seem a return to the Obama agenda — and then some. He has quickly undone the majority of Trump’s executive orders and plans to introduce major legislation in many areas, particularly reducing climate change and improving infrastructure, as quickly as possible. 

But with a divided Congress, it remains to be seen how much of his ambitious agenda can be accomplished.


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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