Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have all been linked to the holiday now known as Presidents’ Day because of their unparalleled contributions to the country. Suppose we identified U.S. presidents based on their positive impacts on the environment? What names would emerge?
President Ulysses S. Grant would certainly get a nod for establishing Yellowstone, in 1872, as the world’s first national park. That ensured that the area would be preserved “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” of the United States by protecting wildlife, timber, and mineral deposits in their “natural condition.” Sounds like the goals many conservation organizations have for our remaining wild lands and waters.
Teddy Roosevelt is acknowledged by environmentally oriented groups as the front-runner in conservation. He started the U.S. Forest Service and developed the concept of the national park system to protect wildlife and natural habitats. Roosevelt was the youngest U.S. president and the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize; he was also responsible for the building of the Panama Canal. But his environmental and conservation accomplishments are his most impressive contributions to our country. The Grand Canyon was among more than 70 natural areas he designated as national monuments, wildlife refuges or national parks. Roosevelt also promoted the concept that citizens who engage in recreational hunting and fishing are the nation’s foremost conservationists. That his face is on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln is fitting.
Another tribute to this champion of conservation is Theodore Roosevelt Island, a memorial managed by the National Park Service. The island is located in the middle of the Potomac River between Arlington, Va., and the Watergate Hotel. The name Watergate is inextricably linked to another president, Richard M. Nixon, who turns out to have been one of the most environmentally influential U.S. presidents.
Teddy Roosevelt recognized the contributions of outdoorsmen in protecting the country’s natural environments. In 1972 Nixon went a step further when he signed a proclamation designating the fourth Saturday of September as National Hunting and Fishing Day. Nixon urged all citizens “to join with outdoor sportsmen in the wise use of our natural resources and in insuring their proper management for the benefit of future generations.”
In 1970 Nixon made an even more notable proclamation: an environmental pledge “to repair the damage already done and to establish new criteria to guide us in the future.” A memo he received from the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization recommended “that key anti-pollution programs be merged into an Environmental Protection Administration, a new independent agency of the Executive Branch.” Nixon heeded the advice and honored his pledge by creating the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s mission is “to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment--air, water, and land--upon which life depends.”
Another Nixon environmental milestone came in 1973 when he signed legislation creating the most powerful environmental law our country has ever set forth: the Endangered Species Act. Likewise the country’s most significant efforts to curb water and air pollution came in the form of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972.
President Grant can be considered a visionary for declaring Yellowstone a national park, an accomplishment that led to international efforts to preserve natural habitats. Teddy Roosevelt was a century ahead of the times when he said the United States needed to take a careful look at “what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when soils have been . . . washed into the streams, polluting the rivers.” His efforts to protect our natural habitats were admirable. Much-needed environmental regulation was promulgated during President Nixon’s administration, and when we think of him we should remember his effort to ensure clean air and clean water for all of us. These three men contributed substantially to the environmental health of the country. We need for all of our presidents to emulate them.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.