The modern environmental movement began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson outlined the detrimental effects of pesticides and corporate disinformation campaigns regarding the chemicals. Richard Nixon adopted the environmentalist mantle during his failed 1962 California Gubernatorial bid. As president, Nixon made environmental protection a priority and initiated many reforms. In the end, Nixon’s efforts were second only to Theodore Roosevelt amongst chief executives. Essentially, Nixon created modern environmental policy and his successors have worked within that framework.
President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 through executive order and congressional approval. He felt environmental policy needed to be streamlined through a single agency as opposed to spread throughout the government. The agency’s power was unclear for a time, but has since extended beyond Nixon’s original intent. Originally, he envisioned an agency that would attack pollution as opposed to consolidation of federal power. Later, Nixon admitted creating the EPA might have been a mistake due to its consolidation of unchecked power.
While the EPA has exceeded its original mandate, other Nixon initiatives have proven successful. The president signed into law a number of acts designed to improve the country’s environment. The Water Quality Improvement Act, the Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act all set America on the path to cleaner air and water and conservation. In fact, the president practically declared war on pollution and fought for extra funds to clean the air and water and improve sewage treatment. Additionally, President Nixon conserved over 80,000 acres of land for future generations.
The nation’s environmental quality began to change after Nixon initiated these reforms. Nixon had more to do with improved air and water quality and reduced pollution than any president in history. In fact, twelve environmental groups ranked the “greenest” presidents in history. Theodore Roosevelt finished first, Nixon second, and Jimmy Carter rounded out the top three. They credited Nixon with jump starting the “second phase of U.S. environmentalism” and “protecting people from industrialization, through public-health regulations.” They credited the president with recognizing “rivers on fire, air choked with pollution” and his efforts to correct the problem through standards and benchmarks.
America’s air, water, and land are cleaner today because of Richard Nixon. He set the standards that cleaned the country. His efforts made air more breathable, water more drinkable, and the land safer. Thousands of species have been conserved or saved due to the Endangered Species Act. Families enjoy thousands of acres of national parkland because of Nixon. Environmentalism is one of Nixon’s less celebrated legacies, but deserves a fuller appreciation from the public.