Home inFocus Ronald Reagan and the Environment

Ronald Reagan and the Environment

Steven F. Hayward Fall 2009

There is an “absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment… The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance.”

This probably sounds like Al Gore, Barbra Streisand, or Ralph Nader. In fact, these words were uttered by Governor Ronald Reagan. At the time, he was signing into law one of the most aggressive environmental protection statutes ever passed up to that point.

How can this be? Are we talking about the same Ronald Reagan who said trees cause pollution? The same Ronald Reagan who said “If you’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen ’em all”? The same Ronald Reagan who appointed a fundamentalist Christian (James Watt) to run the Department of the Interior, who famously said that it didn’t matter if we cut down every tree because Christ would then return?

Indeed, we are talking about the very same man.

Governor Reagan’s Redwoods

It never seems to matter to his critics that, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan set aside 145,000 acres of land for the state park system, a record to which, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon notes, “no other modern California governor has come close.” Never mind that Reagan’s steps toward acquiring redwood forests prepared the way for a large expansion of Redwood National Park after he left office, again leading Cannon to comment that “several of the taller, old-growth redwoods that are now stellar attractions in the nation park probably would have become desks or picnic tables had they not been saved in the Reagan years.”

Never mind, too, that James Watt never uttered any nonsense about being indifferent to nature because Jesus was coming soon. To the contrary, he avowed that anyone who said such a thing was unfit for public office. Environmentalists go on repeating this chestnut anyway.

Surprisingly, Reagan was essentially correct about trees and air pollution. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been quietly studying “biogenic” emissions for years now, noting that a few areas of the country probably can’t meet some Clean Air Act goals because of naturally-occurring sources of air pollution.

By the way, the “seen one redwood, seen ’em all” line is a misquote, too.

Reagan also established the Air Resources Board to battle California’s worst-in-the-nation smog problem, and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to address Lake Tahoe’s environmental challenges. More notable were his repeated and successful efforts to block the construction of two large dams—one on the Eel River and one on the Feather River—that would have inundated remote scenic areas of the state with water.

He also led an effort to block a major highway project that would have cut a four-lane highway through wilderness area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Instead of building a mega-highway, Reagan enlarged and merged two existing wilderness areas, linking up the John Muir Trail and forever safeguarding the area from highways or other development. (Reagan inherited all of these major highway and dam projects from his predecessor, Governor Pat Brown, for whom a major conservation award in California is ironically named.)

In opposing the trans-Sierra highway, Reagan said, “We simply don’t need another highway,” noting that mountain wildlife “are becoming endangered and cannot tolerate any further human disturbance. Any additional motorized access through this part of the southern Sierra will have a major adverse impact on the fragile wilderness values we hold so dear.”

Wasted Money, Wasted Resources

Despite this impressive record (for which environmentalists at the time mostly gave Reagan public credit), the canard remains that Reagan was hostile to environmental values.

For example, in one of the few attempts to assess seriously Reagan’s whole environmental record, political scientist Jeffrey K. Stine wrote in a recent book that Reagan “never held conservation and environmental protection as causes to be championed” as governor of California. Stine states that, “Reagan often sided with environmentalists in their opposition to newly proposed projects, albeit for different reasons” (emphasis added).

This last phrase is the key to understanding much that is wrong with conventional environmental thought today. The tacit premise of Stine’s assertion is that the only legitimate reasons for environmental action are those provided by the organized environmental movement.

In fact, Reagan’s reasons were often sounder than those of conventional environmentalists. For example, Reagan opposed many public works projects in California because he thought they were wasteful spending or not cost-effective.

Conventional environmentalists today often act as though the only resource that is not scarce is taxpayer funds and private sector wealth, and regard cost-benefit analysis as anathema to the cause. Reagan, however, understood that if the government wastes money, either through spending or irrational bureaucratic regulation, the government is wasting resources.

In short, Reagan inherently understood what conventional environmentalists still don’t understand: Wasting money is environmentally counterproductive.

President Reagan

In the late 1970s, before Reagan became president, the importance of fiscally responsible conservationism seemed to have been more commonly acknowledged. Federal regulation was widely viewed as a substantial factor in the slow economic growth of the decade. After all, the 1970s saw more new federal regulation than the 40 years prior. Even the Carter Administration agreed with this assessment; acting on White House orders, the EPA delayed the adoption of several air pollution control standards because of their high cost.

This is the backdrop against which President Ronald Reagan’s environmental policies should be understood. When Reagan became president in 1981, his administration aimed to bring regulatory activity back into a proper economic balance. Numerous studies have shown that the regulations of the EPA (then only a 10-year-old agency) were among the most expensive in the federal bureaucracy.

This problem of EPA waste was especially acute with the Superfund toxic cleanup program that was enacted in haste by the lame duck Congress in 1980. The authors, who believed that it would clean up most toxic sites within two or three years, dumped the legislation on the lap of Reagan’s incoming EPA team, which bungled this ill-designed program, leading to the resignation of Reagan’s first EPA administrator. Due to protracted litigation and bureaucratic delay, it took the Superfund program more than a decade to begin showing significant progress.

It should be noted, however, that the Reagan EPA’s own initiatives were far more successful. For one, it accelerated the phase-out of lead from gasoline and introduced two other new clean air standards. Ambient levels of airborne lead fell 85 percent during the Reagan years—an achievement that environmentalists never acknowledged. Levels of all other major air pollutants (ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulates) also fell during the Reagan years. In 1987 Reagan enthusiastically signed the Montreal Protocol that led to the global phase out of chlorofluorocarbons that erode stratospheric ozone. In his diary Reagan wrote, “This is an historic agreement.”

By far the greatest environmental controversy during the Reagan years came from the aforementioned Interior Secretary James Watt, who offended environmentalists by pushing for more mineral exploration and development on federal lands, a perennial favorite political football for the environmental movement. Watt also attracted criticism for imposing a moratorium on acquisition of more land for national parks and preserves. Ironically, environmental groups often criticize the federal government for mismanaging federal land—yet they demanded that the Reagan Administration acquire more land to mismanage.

The Watt controversies underscore the fact that the modern environmental movement has become wholly politicized. As Jeffrey Stine observed, “The Reagan Administration… helped to reenergize the environmental movement, giving it an enemy against which the major groups could rally their troops, thereby greatly expanding their membership and financial base and allowing them to become far more politically and legally active.” In 1981, the Sierra Club’s political director Doug Scott admitted, “If there hadn’t been a James Watt, we would have had to invent one.”

Ironically, despite the fact that Watt initially imposed a moratorium on new land acquisitions, by the time Reagan left office his administration had added 38 million acres to various categories of permanent protection (3.1 million acres of additional national park land, and 11.7 million to the National Wilderness Preservation System, for example), and nearly 5,000 miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program and the National Estuarine Reserves.

Striking a Balance

In 1982, a consortium of the major environmental groups jointly issued an attack in the form of a report titled, Ronald Reagan and the Environment. They charged that, “the Administration’s environmental policies have harmed the nation, and that the harm grows steadily worse.” So ingrained was the environmentalist mantra and media echo chamber that it extended to his own family. In one diary entry, Reagan recounts a conversation with his son Ron: “A call from Ron. I don’t know who he’s been talking to but we had a debate. He’s convinced I’m not protecting the environment.”

Virtually none of the dire pronouncements of environmental deterioration under Reagan came to pass. Rather, most categories of pollution declined (and have continued to decline).

Reagan’s record stemmed from the fact that he understood the need to strike a balance. He liked to say that he was somewhere in the middle, between those who would pave over everything in the name of progress, and those who wouldn’t let you build anything unless it looked likes a bird’s nest.

Reagan’s philosophy on the environment probably describes the environmental views of most Americans, both then and now. It is this balanced view that is missing from the debates about the environment today.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989 (CrownForum), and the annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators (Pacific Research Institute/AEI Press).


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