Behold Bush’s environmental legacy.

Photo: nasa.gov

My assignment, which I chose to accept, is to offer a tangent of positive thoughts about the Bush administration’s environmental record before readers return to the barrage of verbal drubbing that other Grist writers are no doubt serving up.

Rather than pick out nuggets that lie here and there amidst the dross, a fairer approach is to place the 43rd president’s record on a spectrum with two contrasting bookends of monumental accomplishment and disappointing inaction.

The monumental accomplishment took place two weeks before the administration’s expiration. Relying on a precedent established by Theodore Roosevelt and employed by successors from both parties, President Bush invoked the Antiquities Act to establish three marine monuments that protect some 125 million acres of habitat, history, and beauty in America’s Pacific territorial waters.

The Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll marine national monuments are a treasure of coral reefs, whales, sea turtles, dozens of bird species, hundreds of varieties of fish, the deepest spot one can go without burrowing into the planetary crush, and weird thermal formations that support the toughest life forms on Earth.

The monuments’ waters, islands, and atolls are, for the most part, undisturbed. If Pacific Islanders from a millennium ago were brought forward in time to paddle through the newly preserved waters today, they would find a great deal to recognize.

Bush’s action was the most sweeping use of the Antiquities Act since this somewhat obscure but highly effective conservation law was enacted in 1906.

Combined with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which Bush designated in 2006, his marine preserves are equal in size to the combined extent of all national parks, national wildlife refuges, and the National Landscape Conservation System, plus 9 million acres in change.

Every acre is a wonderful legacy. More importantly, Bush’s actions have given impetus to the emerging recognition that special places at sea deserve the highest levels of protection, akin to national parks and wilderness areas on land. His marine monuments laid a foundation for more and stronger ocean protections by his successors.

Not as dramatic as Bush’s vast ocean monuments but still worthy of note was the president’s expansion of America’s protected wilderness. Bush’s approach to wilderness was what my Minnesota in-laws would call “fair to middlin’” — he did not aggressively champion wilderness bills, but neither did he truck with the extremism that invariably equates wilderness stewardship with an anti-capitalist plot by waffle-stomping elitists.

Bush’s signature on wilderness legislation added nearly 2.5 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Given the muddiness of the administration’s record on air quality, it’s easy to forget the president’s adoption of tougher fuel and engine standards to control harmful emissions from non-road diesel-fueled equipment.

The sooty gunk that shoots out of exhaust pipes from bulldozers and other non-road vehicles is bad news for hearts and lungs in cities across America. The standards, adopted in 2004, are expected to prevent 12,000 premature deaths, 8,900 hospitalizations, and 1 million lost workdays.

Likewise, Bush’s decision to flounce out of global climate negotiations shouldn’t make us overlook the administration’s 2007 success in securing approval of a proposal to bring forward by 10 years the Montreal Protocol’s phase-out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), a refrigerant with a heat-trapping potential hundreds of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The accelerated phase-out could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions up to 16 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent. That’s more than two years’ worth of U.S. CO2 emissions.

Still, the administration was mostly hat and few cattle on climate change and associated energy issues. Which brings us to the other bookend of the spectrum — the opportunity that should have been seized on September 12, 2001.

At one of those rare moments in history when the nation was traumatized and the president had the citizens’ undivided attention, Bush had an opportunity to give U.S. energy policy a hard corrective turn.

It was a moment of clarity. At last, the dangers of oil dependence had broken through the fog of political inertia and narrow agendas. Had Bush seized that moment, he could have begun shifting the American energy economy away from oil, away from conventional fossil fuels, away from waste, and toward safer, cleaner, more efficient energy choices.

For a Texas oilman to do that would have been a Nixon-going-to-China gambit; actually, it would have vastly overshadowed Nixon’s diplomatic coup.

But the moment passed. Instead of explaining the facts about our dangerous energy habits, the president told us to go shopping. Business as usual resumed. Oil consumption continued growing. Meanwhile, the U.S. had checked out of international climate negotiations. Nearly seven years were lost.

Only when gasoline prices had reached painful levels, and only when the evidence for human-caused climate change became too compelling to ignore did the administration begin taking halting steps toward energy diversification and conservation. Bush told us that America is addicted to oil and put his name on overdue legislation strengthening motor vehicle fuel economy standards.

Even so, the administration did not accept statutory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. It continued pushing aggressive growth in domestic fossil fuel production offshore, in Alaska, and in the Intermountain West. It made repeated runs at weakening the Clean Air Act’s pollution control requirements for old coal-fired power plants.

A week before clocking out, the administration finalized a regulation easing controls on mountaintop removal coal mining, about as destructive a fossil fuel production method that can be found anywhere.

How much better it would have been if, rather than enabling more mountaintop removal, oil drilling, and climate change inaction, the president had emulated Theodore Roosevelt’s stunning final year of conservation, when the Rough Rider set aside more than 30 wildlife refuges, established nearly 140 national forests, and protected the Grand Canyon.

Bush often professes to admire TR. Had Bush done on land and in the air — by actively leading the country toward a carbon-free future — what he did at sea, his administration’s conservation record would have borne favorable comparison to Roosevelt’s. Unfortunately, politics too often intervened and opportunities too often were missed. What might have been cannot erase what actually occurred.