As Republicans add 13 new Senators and 62 new Representatives to their Congressional roster, the upcoming 112th Congress promises to be the most virulent anti-environment, anti-wilderness and anti-wildlife legislature than ever. Not only are the new Republican Members global warming deniers, they are also budding EPA investigators, unrepentant BP apologists, insatiable energy hogs and committed solarphobes. Those Republicans disconnected from Nature who put profits ahead of a polar bear while exploiting the planet can be counted on to attack many cherished environmental protections like endangered species and oil and gas regulations.
Given that current day reality, who would believe that the nation’s most effective environmental Presidents were both Republicans? There was a time when the Republican party stood for something more than being the Party of No – No foreign policy, No domestic policy, No to everything except what would benefit a corporate welfare state that preyed on uninformed voters. Republican conservation roots, which date back to Abraham Lincoln designating Yosemite for what would become the nation’s first national park, began to disintegrate when Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter’s solar collectors off the roof of the White House and slashed the home weatherization budget.
As a small, asthmatic boy born to a wealthy, prominent family, Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment grew as he sketched bird drawings while studying natural history and zoology. As 26th President of the United States (1901 – 1909) Roosevelt grew in office as a Republican progressive and trust buster, a strengthened man of conviction into a first rate citizen scientist and naturalist. Roosevelt breathed life into a fledgling national conservation movement as he created the country’s first national wildlife refuge establishing a system that grew to 51 by the time he left office. He went on to create 5 national parks, 4 national game preserves, 18 national monuments and 150 national forests as well as the Antiquities Act of 1906 which stopped looting of historic artifacts on public lands.
In what may come a shock to some liberals, it was the 37th President, Richard Nixon (1969 – 1974) who responded to ecological disasters dominating the nation’s agenda. Once the President Democrats would most love to hate, what matters today is that the increasing dirty air, river pollution and ocean dumping, sewage spills and toxic waste pushed Nixon to evolve into an environmental President. By the time of the Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio, he was “convinced that the 1970’s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.” It was also Nixon who first raised the need for ‘energy independence’ in1970.
While Congressional membership favored the Democrats during Nixon’s term, his legislative achievements which had strong bi-partisan support including establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, expansion of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, support for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the Toxic Substance Control Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Both Roosevelt and Nixon’s legislative accomplishments were comprehensive, visionary and still influential today as both exhibited a strong environmental ethic absent in today’s Republican party. While Democratic Presidents like Jimmy Carter preserved 50 million acres in Alaska, John Kennedy created Canyonlands National Park and Bill Clinton created 17 national monuments for a total 4.6 million acres, the breadth and scope of Roosevelt and Nixon’s public record on environmental lawmaking remains unmatched by any Presidential successors.
With no Roosevelt or Nixon on the horizon, in an age of apathy and a lack of environmental consciousness, when many politicians and citizens are ignorant of basic scientific concepts like photosynthesis, the 2010 election may usher in an era when a new breed of Republicans, unaware of their heritage, seek to make war on the stunning ecological legacy left by America’s two greenest Presidents.