Top 10 Planet Protecting Presidents: Green Commanders in Chief!
Top 10 Planet Protecting Presidents: Green Commanders in Chief!
Happy President’s Day! The President of the United States is called the Leader of the Free World, the Most Powerful Person on the Planet, and many other names that we can’t print on our website.
But what have the impacts been of these powerful men (and surely someday soon, women) on the natural world? Who, based on their accomplishments, have been the most effective Commanders in Chief when it comes to conserving and protecting the natural systems of the planet that we all stake our lives on?
Last week we featured our First Composter in Chief, George Washington, whose “repository” was the first of its kind in America. Mount Vernon had a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, orchard, plant nursery, and an experimental garden where plants and seeds were tested. Washington introduced the concept of crop rotation to American farmers, and employed many land conservation measures, such as planting green cover crops in the winter, and using organic fertilizers.
Here are 10 of George’s political heirs who have had the largest impact on conserving our natural resources, environmental health, habitat and species, pollution prevention, and restoration efforts. Because it’s tough to say if setting aside lands in the 1860’s or protecting species in the 1970’s has a greater impact, we’re listing them in chronological order according to when they served their nation.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
John F. Kennedy summed it up perfectly when he hosted a dinner of all living Nobel Laureates and remarked: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
Thomas Jefferson is known for authoring the Declaration of Independence. But he was also an avid botanist, scientist, architect, inventor, planner and philosopher who believed in respecting and working with nature, and envisioned a society of small farmers living in harmony with the environment. Jefferson sponsored and funded the Lewis and Clark expedition across the continent, not only to find a Northwest Passage, but also to document many of America's indigenous species and people. Thomas Jefferson also founded the University of Virginia, and advocated for good public science education.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Preserver of Union, Lands and Agriculture
Probably America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln not only kept the Union together and ended slavery, but did a lot to protect the environment as well.
Lincoln established the Yosemite Valley in California and its Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias as a public trust, the first time land was set aside specifically for public enjoyment. This prepared the ground for the national parks system. He also established the Department of Agriculture and authorized the National Academy of Sciences, which would go on to lead the world in promoting and fostering innovation.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Conservation’s Patron Saint
Serving 100 years after Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt made conservation a cornerstone of policy. He was influenced by John Muir, consistently lobbied Congress for wilderness protection, and with Gifford Pinchot oversaw creation of the U.S. Forest Service. He put over 230 million acres of lands under federal protection and created the National Wildlife Refuge System, establishing 50 wildlife refuges and five national parks.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
National Parks Champion
Wilson was likely our most intelligent president. He oversaw creation of the National Park Service in 1916, considered one of the greatest treasures of our nation. He also helped established cooperative extension services through land-grant universities to disseminate information on agriculture and other topics. Following the path blazed by Teddy Roosevelt, his anti-trust and labor laws helped set the stage for future environmental regulations, by increasing oversight of corporate actions that might harm the public interest.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Green Jobs, Healthy Soils
In order to put people to work during the Great Depression reverse the soil losses of the Dust Bowl, FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Over 2.5 million Americans planted millions of trees, built summer camps, improved parks and trails, stopped soil erosion and safeguarded other environmental treasures. He presided over creation of the Soil Conservation Service and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Measures were taken to promote long-term productivity and soil health, and the country truly began to realize the importance of protecting natural wealth for future generations.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Waking Up to Pesticides
JFK was reportedly influenced by Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. As a result he established a committee to investigate the impacts of pesticides on health and the environment. This investigation would help lay the groundwork for the establishment of the EPA and modern environmental protection laws. He also encouraged Americans to get outdoors on 50 mile hikes, and laid the groundwork for creating the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969)
Wilderness and Urban Renewal
Picking up Kennedy’s mantle, LBJ’s policies supported urban renewal, beautification and conservation. In 1964 the president signed the Wilderness Act, written by the Wilderness Society, and which protected more than 9 million acres of federal land. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided matching grants for large-scale rail projects.
His wife, Lady Bird Johnson, advocated relentlessly for protection of natural resources. She promoted parks and beautification projects, fought to restrict billboards and worked to protect and plant millions of wildflowers. She continued her work until her death in 2007, saying "where flowers bloom, so does hope."
Richard Millhouse Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon is usually remembered as a disgraced president who escalated bombing in SE Asia, set a combative tone that led to student shootings at Kent State and worked to cover up the Watergate scandal. But Richard Nixon responded to tremendous public demand to do something for the environment, after 20 million people filled the streets on Earth Day in 1970.
Nixon probably signed more significant environmental legislation than any president before or since, including the bills that established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. In1972 he signed the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Ocean Dumping Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Nixon also presided over passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973- the first laws giving other species legal status- and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Remembered and mocked for wearing a sweater, putting up solar panels and turning down the thermostat at the White House, Carter’s energy vision was actually far sighted. Following the wake-up call in 1973 of the OPEC oil embargo, he worked to create the Department of Energy in 1977, with a key goal being the establishment of a national energy policy that promoted clean and alternative fuels. His 1977 speech asking his fellow Americans to drastically ramp up energy efficiency and conservation is both inspiring and visionary. Putting teeth behind his words, Carter’s administration implemented "corporate average fuel economy" (CAFE) standards in 1979 that mandated fuel-efficient cars.
President Carter also oversaw passage of other important laws, including the Soil and Water Conservation Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Antarctic Conservation Act, the Endangered American Wilderness Act and the Superfund Act. He got amendments passed tightening the Clean Air Act, and the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act conserved more than 100 million acres and 26 rivers in our last great wilderness. Carter has gained wide renown for his humanitarian work since leaving office, including Habitat for Humanity, which has been going green and promoting green building.
William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001)
Earth in the Balance
In many ways a study in diminished expectations, especially with Al Gore as VP, Clinton’s presidency nevertheless saw significant conservation and environmental protection policies enacted. Despite a record pace of resource extraction on public lands, and failure to gain support for efforts to thwart global warming, Clinton did get quite a number of things done. He created 17 new national monuments, and expanded four more, preserving more than 4.6 million acres of land and habitat. Clinton also expanded protection for wetlands and old-growth forests and banned road building—a critical conservation feature- on almost 60 million acres of national forest wilderness. His administration also extended the moratorium on offshore oil leases and secured over $3 billion—a 50% increase- in funding each year to research and develop clean energy technologies. He strengthened the Drinking Water Act, moved ahead cleanup of Superfund sites, and strengthened the power of the EPA to take on polluters.
So there you have it- 10 Top White Guys who stood for something Green. I’m looking forward to what perspectives our first black, woman, indigenous, Latin etc. presidents will add to our natural heritage.
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