How Much Impact Can a President Have on the Environment?

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Although the recent political landscape might have you feeling otherwise, throughout history, the environment has been a bipartisan issue. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have left their mark, in ways good and bad, on Mother Earth. In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’re taking a look at what kind of power the U.S. president has to affect the environment, and how a handful have exercised that power.

Protecting Land: Theodore Roosevelt

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You aren’t likely to see a list of eco-presidents without Teddy’s name on the list. That’s because Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments through the 1906 American Antiquities Act. All told, 230 million acres of public land were protected because of him, at a time when most people believed our resources would last forever.

In May 1908, he said:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a Nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.

Of course, Roosevelt was also an avid hunter, a hobby generally seen in opposition to conservation today. At the time, however, the practices weren’t diametrically opposed.

Creating Acts: Richard Nixon

Photo: neftali / Shutterstock

A controversial president overall, Nixon is also contentious among environmentalists. He has quite a few noteworthy accomplishments to his name — the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, extending the Clean Air Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In his 1970 State of the Union address, he said:

“Clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. Through our years of past carelessness, we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”

For his rhetoric and his actions, many believe he was one of the greatest presidents for the environment, laying the groundwork to fight climate change. Others argue that Nixon’s motivations weren’t exactly pure — he wasn’t particularly concerned about the earth himself and largely echoed the popular sentiment at the time. Whatever the case, he did make a difference.

Influencing Policy: Ronald Reagan

Photo: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

Reagan’s administration promptly took down the 32 solar panels on the White House that Jimmy Carter had installed, and the president once claimed that trees cause more pollution than automobiles do. (It didn’t go over well.) Although his environmental record as governor of California was pretty solid, once he got into the White House, he made some decisions that left people concerned, starting with his anti-environmental choices for head of the EPA and Department of the Interior. (However, neither lasted too long, as one was forced to resign, and the other was fired).

Reagan aggressively pursued exploring oil, gas and coal development on national lands, and many believe our current issues with the clean energy crisis started with him and his policies. While many defend his contributions to the earth, Grist does a good job of detailing why he wasn’t a champion of the environment, and how his ideas continue to influence politics today.

Read More:
What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for the Environment?
4 of America’s Greenest Presidents
4 Eco Lessons from U.S. Presidents

Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of national and regional publications, covering everything from sustainability and health to travel and retail.

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