Ronald Reagan: The accidental environmentalist

Former president's economic decline was enviro boon

  • This new Reagan stamp commemorates what would have been the former president’s 100 birthday, Feb. 6.

    U.S. Postal Service
  • This new Reagan stamp commemorates what would have been the former president’s 100 birthday, Feb. 6.

    U.S. Postal Service

Expect to be hearing plenty about Ronald Reagan: The centennial of his birth is coming up soon. Our 40th president was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill. A commemorative postage stamp is in the works, along with traveling exhibits, academic symposiums and sculpture unveilings. Few Western environmentalists will be celebrating -- but maybe they should.

Reagan, who held office from 1981 to 1989, once famously claimed that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." He appointed a development advocate, James G. Watt, as Interior secretary. Campaigning in 1980, he told a Salt Lake City audience to "Count me in as a (Sagebrush) rebel."

The "Sagebrush Rebellion" had started in Nevada the previous year, with the goal of helping Western states take control over their federal land. But it lost momentum after Watt announced a "Good Neighbor Policy" to give locals more input on federal land management. Little really changed on that front. The big change in the West –– the move away from a commodity-extraction economy –– was a byproduct of Reagan's economic policies. It was unintentional, but enduring.

In 1980, the West was booming on account of high commodity prices, especially minerals.  Gold was pushing $800 an ounce with silver approaching $30. Like many other mountain settlements, my town of Salida, Colo., was prospering. Many residents commuted 75 miles to work at the gigantic Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, which employed 3,000 people at good union wages with excellent benefits. Closer to town was another union shop, the Monarch quarry, which supplied limestone to the immense CF&I steel mill in Pueblo, Colo. CF&I also had coal mines near Trinidad and an iron-ore quarry in Wyoming.

High interest rates and high unemployment at the start of Reagan's first term discouraged demand for automobiles, so the U.S. auto industry hit the skids. Demand for steel and copper plunged, along with demand for molybdenum, used to harden steel. The Reagan administration also fought successfully against inflation. People buy gold and silver during inflationary times, and when the inflation rate drops, so does demand and thus the price. Gold fell to about $300 an ounce, and silver to $5. Mines, mills and smelters throughout the West shut down.

Climax scaled back in 1981, and then halted entirely. CF&I stopped primary steel production in 1982, and closed its mines and quarries.

Elsewhere in Colorado, Creede’s Homestake silver mine shut down in 1985. In Butte, Mont., copper production halted at the Berkeley Pit in 1982. U.S. Steel closed its Atlantic City, Wyo., iron mine in 1983. The copper smelter in Douglas, Ariz., closed in 1987. In Idaho's Silver Valley, thousands of miners lost their jobs during the Reagan years.

In some parts of America, the 1980s may have reflected Reagan's campaign theme of "Morning in America." But in the West, it was more like "Mourning in America." Overall, the nation's gross domestic product grew. It doubled and then some, 108.2 percent, from 1980 to 1990, from $2.7 trillion to $5.6 trillion in 2005 dollars, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

But little of that growth happened in the West. During that decade, Wyoming's economy, as reflected in its gross domestic product, grew only 21.8 percent, less than a fifth of the national rate. That was the nation's worst economic performance, and Montana was next-worst at just 48.4 percent. New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado and Utah all trailed the national GDP growth rate. Perversely, the West responded by giving Reagan even bigger margins when he was re-elected in 1984.

Ironically, Reagan was a boon to our environment, simply because when mines, mills and smelters shut down, they don't pollute nearly as much. Further, Reagan canceled Jimmy Carter's synfuels program, which would have turned much of the West into an industrial sacrifice zone. He also put a stop to the MX missile system, which would have torn up a fair chunk of Utah.

Beyond that, those who stayed in the West had to find new ways of gaining a livelihood. Much of the rural West moved from extractive industries to amenity tourism -- which has its own problems, but does value clear air, clean water, flourishing wildlife and scenic vistas as assets worth protecting.

Even though there was a lot of pain out here during the 1980s, we've ended up in a cleaner place. So Western environmentalists ought to join in celebrating the centennial of Reagan’s birth -- even if our reasons will be different from most people's.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

are you kidding?
Jan 11, 2011 03:54 PM
RR the great environmentalist? Hardly. Your version of events as “byproducts” of Reagan economic policy missed the essential nature of both his politics and policy. The reality is more nuanced than you suggest. The boom times of the Reagan years made the growth in the New West possible – boom time in the Rockies did not happen because people stayed here and stuck it out. Most of the growth is because of the tremendous wealth generated during the 1980s and made early retirements and discretionary investments in resorts and property possible. Which has a smaller long-term ecological footprint – a mine or an amenity development?
As he helped usher in a new union-busting era, the effect was higher levels of offshore investment in foreign labor markets. The mines you mention shut down for a variety of reasons – the primary one being the relative costs of production compared to S. America and beyond. The towns that suffered recoiled with a political revolution of their own – the militia and white supremacy movements weren’t good for anyone. RR and Watt did little to moderate it.

Much of what a politician accomplishes in his term is an accident – good and bad. In his heart, RR was pro development, pro industry, and anti environment. We know that. We do not need to give credit where no credit (or intent) was due.
Reagan and the U.S. Forest Service
Ed Javorka
Ed Javorka
Jan 18, 2011 08:09 PM
Are you kidding is right!
Reagan essentially killed the once great agency of the US Forest Service. Until he came on the scene, the USFS was largely apolitical and not much impacted by Washington D.C.'s change of parties.
I know by personal experience. I was there. And I left the agency in disgust because of what he did to us. Shame on anyone thinking RR did anything good environmentally except by default.
Mountains and Rivers
Peter Jacobsen
Peter Jacobsen
Jan 11, 2011 04:30 PM
As Governor of California, he made important, yet under-recognized decisions. He stopped the State Water Project from damming the Eel River by designating it Wild and Scenic. The legislature provided him with two bills, one with and one without the Eel River. He signed the bill protecting the Eel.

He also shut down the Pat Brown freeway construction legacy. Notably, he stopped the Trans-Sierra Freeway.

He likely made these decisions for financial, not environmental reasons.

Curiously enough, conservative commentators still attribute stopping the State Water Project and the freeway building to his successor, Jerry Brown.
Reagan - accidental environmentalist
Christal Waters
Christal Waters
Jan 12, 2011 12:35 PM
The California Environmental Quality Act was signed by Governor Reagan. He may have thought it was a way of slowing government action. However, the Friends of Mammoth Decision ruled that CEQA be applied to government approvals of private actions. Also, he opposed a new trans-Sierra highway between Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks that the FHWA wanted to build. Held a press conference in the High Sierra to show the country that would be despoiled. The highway was dropped.