Monday, February 17, 2020 marks Presidents Day in the US. It’s a time to commemorate exceptional leaders who served their countries well and who made a lasting, positive impact for generations to follow. Those of us who are ecojustice warriors also search deeply in this time of climate crisis to find the qualities of the best US environmental president in the hopes of resurrecting national respect for the natural world.
Which US presidents connected the well-being of earth and the human community to those disproportionately affected by environmental degradation because of economics, race, gender and age? Who deserves the “Best” superlative for environmental leadership against political odds?
The Presidents Day holiday was originally established in 1885 to celebrate President George Washington’s birthday after his death. The day became known as Presidents Day when it became part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for federal employees.
But our world has many more pressing issues than 3-day weekends. We live at a moment in time in which the IPCC says that we can’t exceed 1.5 degrees C. “One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.
Right now, the US executive office has an occupant who doesn’t believe that we’re immersed in a climate crisis. Mother Jones tracks Trump’s position on climate change as his most unpopular position.
Which US presidents do you consider to be the most environmentally conscious?
US Presidents with a Passion for the Environment
The New York Times reminds us that Richard Nixon’s record includes many environmental protections he championed, including the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and his signing of the Clean Air Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
National Geographic says that Thomas Jefferson wrote about the benefits of open space and the danger of cutting down all the trees. He also sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a voyage of discovery to catalog the nature in the great West.
The US Department of the Interior states that, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 into law, he set aside over 104 million acres of land, creating 10 national parks and preserves, 2 national monuments, 9 national wildlife refuges, 2 national conservation areas, and 25 wild and scenic rivers and ensuring that large portions of wilderness remain undeveloped.
Earth.com outlines how Theodore Roosevelt made environmental affairs a top priority. He signed into law the Antiquities Act, giving presidents the authority to proclaim federal lands as national monuments. He created 50 wildlife refuges and 5 national parks, set aside 150 million acres of timberland, and helped develop the the US Forest Service.
But The Washington Post declares that Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s first environmental president. Lincoln’s environmental legislation repertoire includes the Yosemite Grant Act, which set aside thousands of acres of California forest — that laid the groundwork for future US efforts to preserve, protect, and study the environment. Although he was the president who oversaw more transition from farmland to industrialization than any other, he also was deeply affected by the Civil War’s devastating impact on the countryside — soldiers on both sides cut down trees, burned fields and polluted bodies of water. He signed a law establishing the US Department of Agriculture. He signed a bill founding the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit group of academics charged with providing “scientific advice to the government.”
It’s up to you to decide which past holder of the executive office deserves the title “Best US Environmental President.” That person would be a leader and visionary who saw beyond the immediacy of politics and power and looked to the reciprocity necessary for nature and humans to nurture each other.
In today’s charged political climate, it is imperative for citizens to ask political leaders and those running for presidential office, “What will you do to address and protect our environment — before we reach a point of no return?”
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