A look back at Reagan’s environmental record
Photo: Eisenhower Library.
The news of President Reagan‘s passing has sent waves of emotion and rapturous eulogizing through the Republican Party and beyond. Amidst all the heartfelt tributes, it’s clear that the 40th president of the United States is regarded as the true political father figure of George W. Bush — more so than the president’s own dad.
Given the ideological ties between these two administrations — not to mention the election-year timing of Reagan’s death — some measure of political spin on the GOP elegies is all but inevitable. But some critics are concerned that the fond remembrances are coming off as distorted hero worship.
“With all due respect to President Reagan, who was a very nice man, the Republican mythmaking machine is puffing so hard I’m amazed they aren’t having a funeral train stop in the 17 swing states,” said Phil Clapp, president of National Environmental Trust. “They are rewriting history to make a political icon out of a flawed president.”
More surprising than the GOP spin, however, is the fact that many critics of the Bush administration also seem to have forgotten Reagan’s flaws — particularly in the area of the environment.
Republicans for Environmental Protection, an organization that has been a staunch critic of Bush’s environmental record, posted a glowing In Memoriam to Reagan on their website Monday: “REP America joins every citizen in bidding a sad farewell to President Ronald Reagan. His wilderness protection achievements are an enduring legacy for the American people. President Reagan signed into law 38 bills that added more than 10.6 million acres of spectacular forests, mountains, deserts, and wetlands to the National Wilderness Preservation System.”
Also on Monday, the Los Angeles Times published an article praising Reagan for his environmental record as governor of California. The article quotes Reagan biographer Lou Cannon touting Reagan’s gubernatorial eco-legacy as one of the high points of his career: “To me, the environmental achievements are enduring. Who the hell remembers or cares what the taxes or the budget was in 1967, but long after, people are going to be able to use the John Muir Trail without having to hit a highway.”
Photo: Ronald Reagan Library.
John Muir is probably spinning in his grave over such misleading praise. True, Reagan had a strong environmental record as governor, but one might surmise that it was strictly a political posture meant to appeal to his pro-environment constituency in California, given that the minute he stepped foot in the White House, his record on the environment took a dramatic turn for the worse. In fact, had Reagan and his cabinet members gotten their way, wildlands around the U.S. would have been turned into highways, or worse.
“The Reagan administration adopted an extraordinarily aggressive policy of issuing leases for oil, gas, and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national lands — more than any other administration in history, including the current one,” said the Wilderness Society‘s David Alberswerth.
Before delving further into Reagan’s track record, it’s worth recalling his infamous public statement that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” and that if “you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” This is not, in other words, a president who demonstrated much ecological prowess.
Reagan’s ignorance in this area is personified by James Watt and Anne Gorsuch, the leaders he selected to head the Department of Interior and the U.S. EPA, respectively. “Never has America seen two more intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees than Watt and Gorsuch,” said Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who served on the Hill during the Reagan era as chief environment council at the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Photo: U.S. EPA.
The list of rollbacks attempted by these administrators is as sweeping as those of the current administration. Gorsuch tried to gut the Clean Air Act with proposals to weaken pollution standards “on everything from automobiles to furniture manufacturers — efforts which took Congress two years to defeat,” according to Clapp. Moves to weaken the Clean Water Act were equally aggressive, crescendoing in 1987 when Reagan vetoed a strong reauthorization of the act only to have his veto overwhelmingly overridden by Congress. Assaults on Superfund were so hideous that Rita Lavelle, director of the program, was thrown in jail for lying to Congress under oath about corruption in her agency division.
The gutting of funds for environmental protection was another part of Reagan’s legacy. “EPA budget cuts during Reagan’s first term were worse than they are today,” said Frank O’Donnell, director of Clean Air Trust, who reported on environmental policy for The Washington Monthly during the Reagan era. “The administration tried to cut EPA funding by more than 25 percent in its first budget proposal,” he said. And massive cuts to Carter-era renewable-energy programs “set solar back a decade,” said Clapp.
Topping it all off were efforts to slash the EPA enforcement program: “The enforcement slowdown was staggering,” said a staffer at the House Energy and Commerce Committee who helped investigate the Reagan administration’s enforcement of environmental laws during the early ’80s. “In the first year of the Reagan administration, there was a 79 percent decline in the number of enforcement cases filed from regional offices to EPA headquarters, and a 69 percent decline in the number of cases filed from the EPA to the Department of Justice.”
Sound familiar? “There are plenty of similarities between the anti-government, anti-environment ideology of the Reagan administration and that of the current Bush administration,” said Sylvia Lowrance, a former EPA employee who worked as an attorney at the agency under Reagan. “But one critical difference made it far more difficult for the Reagan administration to get away with their agenda: a Democratic majority in Congress. There were strong checks and balances that we don’t see now.”
During Reagan’s first term, there was a Democratic House of Representatives and the Senate was controlled by moderate Republicans — many of them relatively pro-environment, including Robert Stafford (Vt.), Bob Packwood (Ore.), and John Chafee (R.I.). Having control of the House enabled Democrats to hold numerous hearings and investigations into the administration’s controversial initiatives, something they can’t do now that they’re in the minority in both houses of Congress.
But there was another, possibly even more powerful, difference between the anti-environmentalism of the Reagan era and the hostility we see today: Brutal honesty.
“James Watt had all the political skills and public relations sense of a boa constrictor,” said Jim DiPeso, policy director at REP. “When Watt wanted to open up wilderness areas to mining and drilling regardless of the environmental consequences, he said just that. But at least he had the virtue of being a straight shooter.”
Lowrance recalls sitting across the table from Gorsuch in a heated debate over environmental rollbacks. “We had it out,” she told Muckraker. “Contrast that to today when the career people are completely shut out of the conversation. It was a much more honest debate then.”
Watt’s impolitic bluntness ultimately got the best of him. He made the most odious comment of his career in defense of his widely criticized decision to authorize the sale of more than 1 billion tons of coal from federal lands in Wyoming. He argued that he was immune to criticism because members of his coal-advisory panel included “a black … a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” This comment got him fired in 1983, the same year that Gorsuch was forced to resign because documents exposed by Congress revealed major misconduct within her agency.
It’s a sad state of affairs when this kind of contemptible candor is remembered fondly: “If only we could see the wolves beneath the sheeps’ clothing today,” said Daniel Weiss, a senior vice president at the environmental consulting firm M & R Strategic Services, who worked as an environmental lobbyist during the Reagan era. “Unfortunately, now our leaders are much more savvy — and far more insidious. They undo laws in the dead of night. Gale Norton is nothing more than James Watt with a smile.” “As bad as the Reagan administration was,” adds Wetstone, “it looks positively quaint in comparison to what’s happening today.”