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The Environment: Then More Than Ever (and Much More Than Now)

The environment has been conspicuously absent from this year’s presidential campaign.  A Gallup Poll taken this past summer ranked concern about the environment next to last among a list of twelve priorities facing the next president, so this is not surprising.

Forty years ago, when President Nixon was running for a second term, that wasn’t the case.  The American people were deeply concerned about the state of the environment. That’s why Nixon’s strong record of environmental progress was a key element of his re-election campaign.

Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book Silent Spring­ is widely considered to have given birth to a broad-based environmental awareness in America.  Yet when it comes to landmark environmental policymaking, there’s no doubt that Richard Nixon is responsible for raising environmentalism to maturity.

As early as 1962, Nixon recognized the need for government action to address pressing environmental challenges.  Campaigning for governor of California, he advocated far-sighted measures to safeguard water quality by protecting what we now call “watersheds.” He also promoted aggressive action to reduce air pollution, including some of the earliest proposals to reduce vehicle emissions.

Less than a decade later, Richard Nixon became the first president to make environmental protection “a national priority.” In his historic February 10, 1970 Special Message to Congress on Environmental Quality, Nixon proposed a 37-point plan to “move us dramatically forward toward what has become an urgent common goal of all Americans: the rescue of our natural habitat as a place both habitable and hospitable to man.”

President Nixon’s leadership led to the creation of modern environmental policy.  The Nixon administration initiated the many of the most important – and enduring – environmental policies in American history. And he did so with strong bi-partisan support from a Congress firmly controlled by the Democrats.

  • He established the Council on Environmental Quality in the White House to focus the administration’s environmental policy efforts and established the Environmental Protection Agency, bringing the federal government’s various environmental functions under one roof.

  • He enacted the legislation that continues to form the foundation of America’s environmental policy.  The National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970, and the Endangered Species Act are just some of President Nixon’s major policy accomplishments.

  • He sought dramatic funding increases to strengthen the nation’s efforts to improve water quality and reduce air pollution.

  • He pursued partnerships with state and local governments to construct much-needed sewage treatment facilities to stop the discharge of raw sewage into the nation’s waterways.

  • He created the Legacy of Parks program that, before he left office, gave state and local governments more than 80,000 of acres surplus federal lands for public parks and recreational activities.

The environmental achievements of the Nixon Administration have been so effective in improving the quality of America’s air and water and restoring and protecting our land that even today people are attempting to claim credit for them.

Perhaps the most curious effort to assign credit in recent years has been that of respected historian Douglas Brinkley.

Earlier this year, in an interview with CNN promoting his new biography of newsman Walter Cronkite, Brinkley said that Cronkite “was instrumental in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency because he created a segment [which aired] night after night called ‘Can we save the planet?’”

While there’s no doubt that Cronkite’s stories helped increase public awareness about the environment, by the time CBS began airing those stories in spring 1970 the Nixon Administration was well on its way to establishing the EPA.

Several weeks ago, at the National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress, Brinkley related advice once given him by fellow historian, Stephen Ambrose: “Abandon chronology at your own peril.”  Unfortunately, in this case, Brinkley ignored Ambrose’s advice.  As the record shows, the Nixon administration’s proposal to create the EPA was almost complete well before the first “Can we save the planet” segment even aired.

In 1969, the President established the Advisory Council on Executive Organization to recommend ways in which the Executive Branch could be better structured to carry out the President’s goals. Roy L. Ash, a leading business leader of the time, chaired the Council.

Among the major areas on which the Council focused were the federal government’s myriad agencies with environmental responsibilities.  After months of study, on April 29, 1970 (just one week after the first Earth Day) the Ash Council recommended the establishment of the EPA.  Before the year was out, the EPA was up and running.

As an EPA history of the agency relates:

With words still surprisingly fresh, [President Nixon] called for the creation of "a strong, independent make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food." Thus, EPA was created.

Nevertheless, President Nixon’s achievements in restoring and protecting America’s environment have not gone unrecognized among those who are in the know. A poll of twelve environmental organizations recently named Nixon the second “Greenest” Chief Executive in America History.

This same poll awarded Theodore Roosevelt first place.  Although I’m sure RN would have preferred to be number one, I don’t think he would have minded too much coming in just behind TR.

And it just might be that the fact that the environment ranks so low among voters’ concerns this year reflects the long record of environment progress that began under  President Nixon’s leadership and vision two generations ago.