Book Review: ‘Presidents and the American Environment’ by CAPS Board Member Otis Graham

Published on July 10th, 2015

For about a dozen years during my ongoing three-decade career as an environmental planner and wildlife biologist, I consulted extensively for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I assisted the Service in preparing comprehensive conservation plans (CCPs) and habitat management plans (HMPs) on about 50 national wildlife refuges (NWRs) around the country, reaching from the Caribbean to Alaska.

Lucky guy! I got to visit, explore and help develop long-term plans to manage and protect some pretty special places, all characterized by their abundance and diversity of wild living things.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
Theodore Roosevelt and iconic California conservationist John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt and iconic California conservationist John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to draft an HMP for Pelican Island NWR on the east coast of Florida. I was thrilled at this opportunity because Pelican Island NWR was the very first national wildlife refuge in the whole country. It had just celebrated its centennial, having been set aside in 1903 to protect imperiled colonial nesting water birds such as the snowy egret and brown pelican by the one and only President Theodore Roosevelt (TR) – America’s greenest president ever. On March 14 of that year, without fanfare, TR signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation, later renamed a national wildlife refuge.

From this modest beginning a century ago, the National Wildlife Refuge System has expanded to include more than 540 national wildlife refuges encompassing more than 95 million acres. It is the world’s largest, premier collection of lands set aside specifically for wildlife (all wild flora and fauna), whose guiding motto is “Wildlife Comes First.”

Teddy Roosevelt features prominently as a presidential hero in an important new book, scholarly but eminently readable, by Dr. Otis L. Graham, Jr., Presidents and the American Environment (University Press of Kansas). Graham is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of America’s leading environmental historians. He is the author or editor of more than 15 books, including Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present (with Roger Daniels) and Environmental Politics and Policy, 1960s to 1990s. He is also a CAPS board member.

TR’s conservation legacy is staggering and unrivaled in American history. During his presidency, he established 150 national forests, six national parks, 51 bird sanctuaries, four national game preserves and 18 national monuments (four of which eventually became national parks) – 180 million acres in total. And just as important as these executive actions was his vigorous use of the “bully pulpit” to broadcast the conservation message from sea to shining sea.

Upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, TR exclaimed:

I hope you won’t let a building of any kind mar the grandeur and sublimity of the canyon. You cannot improve upon it.

That’s not to say that TR pleased nature lovers with each and every decision. (The term “environmentalist” did not come into vogue until the 1960s.) He, like every president or governor ever since, wrestled with the philosophical, practical and political clashes between the competing ideals of “preservation” versus “conservation.” Generally speaking, preservation means setting aside pristine wild areas for their untrammeled nature and for those relatively few hardy souls seeking solitude and willing to use their own muscle power to find it.

Conservation, in contrast, allows for a managed, supposedly sustainable level of resource use, including constructing roads, harvesting timber (logging), mining and animal grazing, as well as building dams, recreational areas and power lines. Resource managers call this approach “multiple use;” detractors, “multiple abuse.”

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
Giant Redwood Trees of California,
by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

National parks and national wilderness areas tend to symbolize the preservation ideal, while national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas, the conservation ideal.

But what TR felt – and what set him apart from virtually every other president – was an authentic, visceral bond with nature, wildlands and wildlife. This was evident even as an asthmatic, smallish city boy, when this avid reader of natural history and frontier life started recording bird sightings and opened his own “Roosevelt Museum” of plants and animals at home. TR’s father was actually one of the founders of the magnificent American Museum of Natural History on the western edge of Central Park in New York City, and TR himself later donated many specimens to that museum.

TR’s championship of conservation has been well-documented for a century, though Professor Graham fills in a good many delicious details of which I was unaware.

What of the other presidents though – patriarchs of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, such as Harrison, McKinley, Taft, Harding, Coolidge and the “other” Roosevelt (FDR) – to say nothing of the more recent conservationists-in-chief, like Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes (father and son), Clinton and Obama?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of Shenandoah National Park, July 1936.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of
Shenandoah National Park, July 1936.

About the earlier batch, those who came immediately before and after TR, history says little of their environmental leadership (or lack thereof), generally because there is little to say, writes Graham. Neither the American nation and people themselves, nor their elected leaders, had yet matured to the point that they placed a high value on things natural, or realized what was at risk of injury and loss as the country’s population and economy grew like gangbusters. After all, for the first century or more, the de facto national mission had been to carve a civilization out of the wilderness, not to embrace and cherish the remnants of wilderness which managed to survive the onslaught.

It took the better part of a century of grooming and nurturing by visionaries, romantics and transcendentalists – writers, poets, painters, artists and naturalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, George Perkins Marsh, John Burroughs, Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School (Thomas Cole and the like) – for the American people and their presidents to begin to understand and appreciate the glorious natural heritage of their country, crucial for both spiritual and economic well-being. Previously they took it all for granted. President Kennedy’s Interior Secretary, the conservationist Stewart Udall, in his classic book The Quiet Crisis, referred to this as the “myth of superabundance.”

As far as the latter group of presidents, only Franklin D. Roosevelt rates a chapter by himself in Graham’s book. Part and parcel of FDR’s New Deal were new programs and agencies like the Work Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). These massive, job-creating agencies, employing millions of Depression-era laborers, worked both to conserve and to develop natural resources.

Several decades after its founding, TVA itself became a leading target (along with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation) of environmentalist ire for its persistent proclivity to build dams and nuclear power plants. FDR’s mixed (or well-rounded) conservation legacy is exemplified by the fact that in 1935 he dedicated Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and in 1936 Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a case of natural resource utilization in the former and a blend of nature preservation and economic development in the latter (which entailed the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the forcible removal of long-time hill dwellers from their traditional lands).

While he was fond of horses, the outdoors and the cowboy look, Ronald Reagan was no friend of the American environment.

While he was fond of horses, the outdoors and the cowboy look,
Ronald Reagan was no friend of the American environment.

In Presidents and the American Environment, Graham takes stock of the presidents’ environmental legacies on balance, and even encapsulates them nicely with pithy chapter headings. Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presided over “growing and polluting in boom times.” Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter commanded the ship of state when environmentalism came of age and quickly blossomed into a political force to be reckoned with. Each of them, responding to the zeitgeist, did at least some positive things for the environment, from establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signing into law the National Environmental Policy Act (Nixon), to advocating for and signing the Alaska National Interests Lands and Conservation Act (Carter).

Reagan, Bush the elder and Clinton, in disappointing contrast, were “Presidents Brown and Pale Green.” As beloved as he was and is, understandably, by American conservatives, Ronald Reagan nonetheless wins the booby prize as the brownest president in American history, hands down. He would no doubt consider this an honor, because he held environmentalists and their core values and beliefs in utter, undisguised contempt.

Graham refers correctly to:

Reagan’s stubborn belief in the basic outlook Teddy Roosevelt (TR) and the first generation of conservationists (and all subsequent ones) had rejected – that the United States was a place of superabundant, even inexhaustible, land and resources.

Graham subtitles the chapter on Bush the younger and Obama, “wobbly leaders.” And for one of them, the occupant of the White House from 2001 to 2009, at least in my view that is an overly generous assessment.

What then to make of the current president’s environmental leadership? On the one hand, as Graham points out, Barack Obama has done far more to advance the cause of strong American action on climate change and related energy policy than all other previous presidential administrations combined. (Granted, climate change has only emerged as the “mother of all environmental issues” in the last two decades or so.)

Many climate activists, while grateful for Obama’s baby steps and rhetoric, nonetheless expected and are demanding far more of him. However, this may be an unrealistic expectation of any American president given the public’s consistent and widespread apathy about global warming, in spite of concerted efforts by many enviros and scientists to link economic, social and ecological calamities like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, to our fossil fuel addiction and the concomitant, unremitting accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

As well, one gets the feeling – I know I certainly do – that Obama pushes his environmentalist agenda not because his heart is really in it, but because – in some measure due to Reagan’s and subsequent Republican presidents’ overt hostility to environmentalists – environmental activists are now firmly ensconced in the Democratic camp, practically card-carrying members of it. That is, to placate this captive constituency, the Democratic Establishment will push the environmentalist agenda forward, but only to a point.

They will not push it to the point of antagonizing an even more powerful interest group in their “progressive alliance” – Hispanics. Latino leadership and elites (if not the rank-and-file) are adamantly opposed to restricting immigration and the effective enforcement of our immigration laws, because rapid growth in the number of Latino voters, propelled by mass immigration from Latin America, is key to their pursuit of power; the faster that growth, the more quickly they will obtain that power.

For diehard, earnest Earth Day environmentalists or deep ecologists like myself, all this strongly suggests that neither Obama nor the contemporary Democratic establishment are really serious about steering the United States toward environmental sustainability. Population stabilization, after all, is a sine qua non – a central, nonnegotiable element – of long-term environmental sustainability.

Toeing the essentially open-borders Democratic Party line on immigration – and thus supporting essentially unchecked U.S. population growth from unchecked immigration – is a core betrayal of fundamental environmental principle. Yet it is a price the politically correct, emasculated and enervated environmentalist establishment has willingly paid for admission as a junior member of the progressive/Democratic team and for continuing acceptance. It is the cost of playing ball. And since they are already banished to left field by the Republicans, enviros can’t afford to be exiled from the ballpark altogether if they are to enjoy any influence at all in the short term. But over the long term, by acquiescing to endless population growth, by making this Faustian bargain, the environmentalist establishment has thrown the environment it supposedly fights for under the proverbial bus.

No one personifies Democratic insincerity and phoniness on the environment better than Barack Obama. To this writer’s knowledge, for all the prattling and pandering Obama has done on the environment, he has never once publicly evinced any understanding that ever-growing numbers of human beings are bad for the Earth and bad for that portion of the Earth we call America.

Why? Prof. Graham, I think, provides a clue. Unlike TR, the sickly city boy who couldn’t get enough of nature when he was growing up, Obama lived on a beautiful, lush island in the Pacific (Oahu in Hawaii), but apparently had little interest in the nature that surrounded him as a boy or young man. Writes Graham:

Obama lived most of his growing-up years in Honolulu, on the leeward and more densely urbanized side of the island of Oahu. Judging by his account, the geography and climate of the place made no great impression on him; life in Honolulu…never seemed to pivot on island landscape or wildlife but overwhelmingly on individuals and his urban activities with them – his mother, grandparents, younger sister, and schoolmates. He and his biographers tell of basketball games, long walks through the city, movies seen, hanging out at Mr. Burger’s Drive-In, dabbling in beer, cocaine, marijuana. It might as well have been Topeka, Kansas, where his mother was raised.

A young Barack Obama with his maternal grandfather, mother and sister in Hawaii.
A young Barack Obama with his maternal grandfather,
mother and sister in Hawaii.

And Graham quotes Time magazine correspondent Michael Grunwald: “Obama was no tree-hugger. Nature wasn’t something he felt in his gut.” Perhaps this is why, as a died-in-the-wool, old-fashioned conservationist, I am left unpersuaded and uneasy – if not downright queasy – by the environmentalish platitudes rolling off of Obama’s silver tongue that have made so many other followers of “environmentalism lite” swoon.

Graham too predicts that future historians will rate Obama’s environmental leadership as average at best:

Obama was and is…a conventional, urban liberal, civil-rights-oriented ‘neighborhood activist’ of familiar views….Environmentalists should look elsewhere for a leader who has slept under the stars and, if Hawaiian, knows and cares that the island’s coral reefs are dying beneath the Pacific’s emerald waters as they slide upward across the beaches.

In another century, if there are still historians extant to tell the amazing and tragic story of America’s grandiose boom-and-bust trajectory, events and presidents that now loom large will have receded to bit parts in the big picture.

And the big picture, Graham adroitly informs us, is this:

To the retreating wildlife, the establishment of national forests and national parks in the TR era did little to slow the devastation produced by the reality behind two revered words, national growth. The human population, in 1900 at 76 million, was then roughly ten times the size of the indigenous population when the European invasion began and vastly more technologically advanced. It grew to 123 million by 1930, migrating from rural to urban settings and spreading westward into the Great Plains and southward toward the tropical allure of a watery Florida seen as begging for improvement – which meant drainage and development. None of the perils TR and his lieutenants warned about – deforestation, soil erosion, flooding, wildlife extinction – had been arrested during this era of growth, let alone reversed.

Even if all presidents in the century and more since TR strode the presidential stage had been as environmentally exemplary as TR himself, attaining a prosperous, just, socially cohesive, durable and ecologically sustainable America would still be a formidable challenge. Of the scores of civilizations that have come and gone in the past, not one has ever achieved it. The dust of five continents is littered with their shattered remains.

Presidents and the American Environment
By Otis L. Graham, Jr.
University Press of Kansas, 2015

Highly recommended for readers with an interest in
American presidents and environmental history.

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