Wandering the West
May 31, 2011
As a lifelong reporter, I’ve learned to keep an open mind, to hear all sides of a story, so I have to say that Richard Nixon was one of the past century’s great presidents.
Oh, it hurts to say anything nice about him. On the Vietnam thing, the Watergate thing, the general dark-and-evil-thoughts thing, RN was perfectly awful as a national leader. But on the matter of the environment, the man was a star.
This is a travel column, but when writing about the grand spaces in the West, I have to occasionally take note of policies that affect those spaces. Republican presidents have protected those spaces for much of the past century. I just finished reading "The Big Burn: Theodore Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America," the story of massive, deadly fires across Idaho and Montana in 1910 that killed hundreds, destroyed towns, and burned through millions of acres of timber land. Out of the Big Burn came the expansion and funding of the U.S. Forest Service under the leadership of Roosevelt’s good friend, Gifford Pinchot. It accomplished one of the great goals of Roosevelt’s presidency to slow the uncontrolled exploitation of Western lands by those lacking in any kind of conservation ethic.
Roosevelt was an outdoorsman. He loved the West and by executive order protected the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Others followed, and Roosevelt’s legacy became that of the great conservationist, protecting forests from exploitation by big timber and setting aside grand places like the Grand Canyon, beyond the reach of miners and other commercial exploiters. The numbers speak for themselves. He declared 150 large tracts of land as national forests, declared 18 national monuments, and created more than 75 game and bird refuges.
Fast forward to the end of the 1960s, when another Republican president, Richard Nixon, got busy too. A national groundswell arose, opposing smog in cities and waters so polluted that rivers could catch fire from the petroleum and chemicals in them. Lake Erie was called "dead" by those who studied it and lived along its shores.
The symbol of the country itself, the bald eagle, had become a rare sight because the pesticide DDT got into the food chain, resulting in the production of thin eggshells that didn’t protect the embryos.
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John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s closest White House aides, claims credit for turning RN into something of an environmentalist with a boat ride around Puget Sound, where Ehrlichman lived, pointing out sources of pollution that were harming that spectacular water body.
As president, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. He proclaimed the first Earth Week in 1971. He signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act into law. The Endangered Species Act passed under his watch.
Over time, as DDT was banned, bald eagles produced survivable eggs and returned to the skies in greater numbers. Nixon cracked down on oil spills (after a disastrous one in Santa Barbara Channel in 1969), banned ocean dumping of pesticides, and formed coastal management zones. He ordered the first national inventory of wild places on federal land, the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation process that led to later designations of official wilderness areas. Much of what Richard Nixon’s administration accomplished still forms the basis for the environmental protections of today.
The trouble is, since Nixon’s demise, Republican presidents have turned increasingly hostile to environmental issues. The culmination came when George W. Bush’s federal land agencies went into overdrive processing all the energy-drilling applications encouraged and filed under Bush’s watch. While he accurately pointed out that "America is addicted to oil," he didn’t do much to encourage alternatives or conservation.
Now we’re in the early stages of the next presidential campaign and again Republicans are running against environmental protections. Most want to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During her two-year stint as governor, Sarah Palin even sued the Bush administration because even it sought protection under Nixon’s Endangered Species Act for polar bears in her home state.
Some candidates, despite overwhelming scientific research, aren’t even sure climate change — or global warming — is real. The environment is hardly an issue for any candidate, but when it is, Republicans are generally seen as the ones who favor less protection and regulation while Democrats have cornered the market on environmentalist support.
How did this flip-flop happen, from the green days of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, when America took its most aggressive moves to protect what we love?
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.