Though consumed by the day-to-day duties of office, deep in the mind of every American president must be questions about how his decisions will be dissected by historians in the decades and even centuries after he leaves office.
Presidents, especially those in their second term, usually turn a watchful eye to their so-called legacies. The inaugural address, Rose Garden ceremonies and tours aboard Air Force One all become staging grounds to mold images read by the future.
The issues that form presidential legacies are as diverse as the presidents themselves, yet they usually share a common vein — the betterment of humankind, peace and world stability, nurturing and expanding the U.S. and world economy and justice, here and abroad.
Though conservation was an idea that arrived on the scene roughly 100 years ago, it has also become one of the underpinnings of presidential legacies. Chief executives from both parties and of various political philosophies have dedicated at least some effort to improving the environment.
Theodore Roosevelt left one of the most enduring environmental legacies. He established 51 wildlife refuges, ushered through the Antiquities Act, which led to the designation of 18 national monuments, and set the stage for the establishment of the National Park Service. But in the world of modern presidents, Roosevelt is not alone.
Lyndon Johnson helped push through the landmark Clean Water and Wilderness acts and, with the assistance of Lady Bird Johnson, the Beautification of America programs.
Richard Nixon worked cooperatively with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to pass landmark environmental laws, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act amendments and several laws that protect and preserve the species we share the planet with.
He doesn’t always get credit for it, but Ronald Reagan oversaw the designation of more wilderness in the Lower 48 states than any other president, Democrat or Republican.
Bill Clinton established several national monuments and initiated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect more than 50 million acres of America’s intact forests. Although he served only one term in office, the current president’s father, George H. W. Bush, worked with Congress to pass the far-reaching Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which he signed despite the objections of utilities and industries.
The reason for the role of the environment in presidential legacies is easy to understand. Presidents, especially the wiser among them, recognize that safe water, clean air, and the protection of wilderness and other species besides our own are important to all people. That is why environmental accomplishments are listed in the biographical sketches of nearly every modern president and why they feature prominently in presidential libraries.
In the context of legacy and history, one has to wonder what is going through President George W. Bush’s mind today. His first administration implemented the most regressive environmental policies in American history. Whether it’s the decision to pull out of the Kyoto accords on global climate change, the thwarting of the Clinton administration’s roadless forest policy, the giving to antiquated power plants a pass on having to reduce their dangerous emissions of mercury — a reversal of one of his father’s policies — or efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act, nearly every aspect of the environment has felt the heavy hand of the Bush administration.
His policies have been so negative and so broadly damaging that one has to question if he can do anything now to avoid being characterized as the worst environmental president in American history. His early announcements that he plans to dedicate his second term to opening up a wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil exploration, easing Clean Air Act restrictions and ending habitat protections for salmon make one wonder if he even cares.
Bush’s environmental policies are troubling enough. Equally troubling is his active involvement in undermining the environmental legacies of his predecessors, including those of his father. Unfortunately for Americans and for the world, the impact of Bush’s environmental legacy will go well beyond the pages of a history book. It will be felt for generations in the health of humankind and in the loss of those places and species that we have shared this planet with for as long as we have existed.
Mike Dombeck is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has served as chief of the U.S. Forest Service and director of the Bureau of Land Management, and is now a professor of environmental management at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
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