Presidents’ Day is today, Feb. 18. As we look back upon our famous (and some infamous) leaders throughout history, we may wonder what impact their decisions have had on our environment. Our collective ideas of conservation and environmentalism have evolved through the decades, and our presidents’ actions and decisions have been shaped by these values. Let’s take a journey through our presidential history to see this evolution of eco-ideals.
- Thomas Jefferson has become one of our more controversial presidents, and for good reason. He was, however, very mindful of our environment and natural resources. As much as he was a man of his troubled time, he was also forward-thinking in some ways. In 1806, he wrote to Edmund Bacon, “We must use a good deal of economy in our wood, never cutting down new, where we can make the old do,” proving that the notion of re-using what we have instead of consuming new resources goes back to colonial times.
- A very forward-thinking president in terms of social justice, Abraham Lincoln also established the Yosemite Valley and its giant sequoias as a public trust, which laid the groundwork for our national parks system. The West was still wide open, but Lincoln saw the importance of preserving its beauty and grandeur for future generations.
- Some may argue that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was history’s most eco-friendly president. He oversaw the creation of the U.S. Forest service, protected over 190 million acres of forest, created 50 wildlife refuges and 5 national parks, and he also created the first national bird preserve at Pelican Island, Florida. His presidency is not without controversy, however, and the preservation of these lands often came at the expense of the native people living there.
- Fast-forward to the modern, post-industrial revolution era of the mid-twentieth century. The economy was booming, and our country was changing in a number of ways. Lyndon B. Johnson is more famous for his “Great Society” plan, which sought to end social injustice, but he also created the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and the Land and Water Conservation Act. He also promoted rail projects through the Urban Mass Transportation Act. His wife, Ladybird Johnson, was quite the environmentalist as well, and she promoted wildflower protection and nature conservation on her own.
- Perhaps the most controversial modern president is Richard Nixon, who was very much shaped by the times. On Earth Day, 1970, 20 million people took to the streets out of concern for the environment. Later that year, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency as well as signed the Clean Air Act into law. Later, he signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
- Growing up on a farm in rural Georgia, Jimmy Carter had a deep understanding of the importance of protecting our natural resources. The 1970’s saw a great shift in how our nation thought about energy, and Carter created the Department of Energy in response to this national conversation. He also installed solar panels on the White House. Since leaving the White House, he has focused on humanitarian efforts and has worked closely with Habitat for Humanity, which is an organization that Green Mountain has also supported through our Sun Club.
This list is far from comprehensive, and you no doubt have your own take on the records of our presidents. Who do you think is our most famous (or infamous) president in terms of environmental policy? Post your comments below!