A Conservative History of Environmentalism

Nixon signs the executive order creating the EPA

Photo: President Nixon signs the executive order creating the EPA, flanked on his right by William Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first administrator

Let’s look at a few quotes from past Presidents and see if you can guess who said them:

  1. You’re worried about what man has done and is doing to this magical planet that God gave us, and I share your concern.
  2. The Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man.
  3. Good stewardship of the environment is not just a personal responsibility, it is a public value… Our duty is to use the land well, and sometimes not to use it at all. This is our responsibility as citizens, but more than that, it is our calling as stewards of the earth.
  4. The United States will continue its efforts to improve our understanding of climate change – to seek hard data, accurate models, and new ways to improve the science – and determine how best to meet these tremendous challenges.

Any guesses? Maybe President Obama? Clinton for sure, right? Here are the answers in order, and I hope it surprises you: 1) Ronald Reagan, 2) Richard Nixon, 3) George W. Bush, 4) George H. Bush. If that shocked you, wait for this. The “greenest” presidents have been ranked over time. Half of them were Republican. The top two of all time, Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt, are Republican. Somehow, we’ve forgotten history.

We all know what Teddy Roosevelt did for the country. At a time of great expansion, he had the foresight to set aside the wild places and preserve them through an incredible system of parks that we still enjoy today. His legacy shall forever be firmly enshrined as the greatest environmental president of all time. But how in the heck did Nixon capture the number two spot? It wasn’t that long ago. We should know this!

Nixon’s environmental stewardship was overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, but if we look at his record, it is astounding. He saw environmentalism as rare common ground with a counterculture roiling the nation with its rejection of mainstream social norms and demands for women’s rights, civil rights, and an end to the war. Here’s a list of Nixon’s accomplishments for the environment:

  1. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which required environmental impact statements on all policy that might affect the environment.
  2. He created the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.
  3. Nixon created the EPA! It was one of his greatest environmental achievements, which came about largely because it related to a goal he cared about: shrinking the federal government. Working through a reorganization plan rather than legislation, he consolidated functions scattered among some 44 government offices. The EPA would treat “air pollution, water pollution, and solid wastes as different forms of a single problem,” Nixon said. Pleased by the idea of unified antipollution leadership, House and Senate subcommittees agreed to the new regulatory agency.
  4. Nixon created NOAA “for better protection of life and property from natural hazards…for a better understanding of the total environment, and for exploration and development leading to the intelligent use of our marine resources.”
  5. Also during his administration, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and we all celebrated Earth Day for the first time.

I’m not making this up folks. Environmentalism was a core value in the Republican party for a very long time.

There are many other examples of conservative presidents doing incredible things for our natural resources. These issues were never partisan. In fact, many of these legislative efforts brought both parties and the country together. The Clean Air Act passed with 400 votes in the House and nearly 90 votes in the Senate. Conserving wild places used to be the one thing we could all agree upon.

In the last twenty years, a deep divide has grown between the two parties. No one is without blame. Money has flowed into both camps from special interest groups and widened the gap. All the while, fisheries management remained unscathed. In fact, the 2006 re-authorization passed unanimously in the Senate.

Fast forward to today and fisheries management is now facing the same partisan divisiveness that has plagued other issues for the last twenty years. HR 200, Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, passed through committee on a partisan vote. One side had more seats and pushed it through. There was little discussion between the two parties. This is far from the good work we saw in 2006. Why has this happened?

Well, recreational fishermen are no longer being represented by recreational fishermen. Much like the energy, big pharma, and other powerful lobby groups, the corporate fishing industry has taken over and the average person has been left out. Here’s a great article describing what happened over the last few years. We have now been plunged into the quagmire we had avoided for so long. Instead of great minds working toward a bright future, we have succumbed to special interest lobbying.

We all count. The commercial fishermen, the recreational fishermen, and the coastal economies we all support have all had their ups and downs. We all have issues that should be addressed. I believe all of our concerns should be paramount to the Magnuson-Stevens Act discussions. We can all work together to conserve our natural resources. Look at our history! One of the most hated conservative presidents was in fact the second best environmental leader of the past century. I’m not making this up. The country has forgotten who we are and where we came from. The cost to our resources could be tragic and there’s plenty blame to go around. Let’s not play the blame game though. We can turn this situation into something positive. There’s still time.

Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization should not be partisan. Congress should scrap this junk legislation, and go back to the table and talk. Surround themselves with people who understand and care about the resource. The result will be a vibrant coastal economy, better trade balance on seafood, better sales for equipment, and a better future for our kids.

We all used to work together. It is never too late to make a change. The fishermen I know just want their kids and grandkids to be able to fish. Please don’t ruin our marine resources to sell more motors and fishing gear.

About Tony Friedrich

Tony Friedrich has worked in the field of conservation for over a decade. He was the founder of Lefty Kreh's TieFest, the largest independent fly fishing show in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Executive Director for CCA Maryland for almost 8 years.  He lives on the Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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