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Eco Presidents' Day: Which Were the Most Environmental US Heads of State?
Monday, 17 February 2014 00:00  |  Written by Ryan Miga | Article

Four Presidents Depicted on Mt. Rushmore (One Made Our Eco-Best List) photo by Dean FranklinEnvironmentalism has been a key talking point in US politics for decades. Every person who steps into public office is compelled to at least fake an interest in protecting the natural world. Pledges to save the trees and endangered species are standard-issue campaign rhetoric. So politicians must be judged on their policies, not just their stump speeches. We think the following presidents demonstrated at least some sincere concern for environmental issues. None of them are perfect when it comes to ecology, but overall they’ve shown enough green concern that they rise to the top of the presidential crop.

Our pool of candidates have been limited to presidents serving after 1900 to remain consistent with our list of the Least Environmental US Presidents. Given the widespread environmental destruction before the 20th century, there’s no easy way to determine who the progressives, if any, were. Also excluded from competition was the current president, Barack Obama. It seems only fair to let him finish his term before judging his environmental legacy.

Number 5: Lyndon B. Johnson
There is no excuse—and we should call a spade a spade—for chemical companies and oil refineries using our major rivers as pipelines for toxic waste. There is no excuse for communities to use other people’s rivers as a dump for their raw sewage. - Lyndon B. Johnson on the Water Quality Act of 1965

The use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam under LBJ’s watch was an environmental crime, not to mention a horrific human tragedy that should not be ignored. Still, the Johnson Administration’s environmental policies in the US were fairly good. Johnson’s “Great Society” program included the protection of the natural environment. He signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act and the Wilderness Act, subsidizing public transit and protecting over 9 million acres respectively. The First Lady was also a dedicated environmentalist, who continued her work for natural preservation and beautification even after her husband’s death. Johnson should definitely be held responsible for the environmental and humanitarian atrocities of the Vietnam War–but his domestic policies make him one of the more environmentally conscious US presidents.

Number 4: Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. – FDR’s letter to state governors, February, 1937

FDR might not have been as committed to the environment as his cousin Teddy (who came in at number two on our list), but he made lasting contributions to the green movement. His “New Deal” program did a lot to help the cause of conservation. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, worked on many projects to restore public land. FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority helped farmers use their land more efficiently and sustainably–although some of the TVA’s projects, such as building dams, remain controversial. The Soil Conservation Service created by FDR helped combat erosion and soil deterioration. Wildlife management was adopted as a serious political issue for the first time under FDR. And the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act taxed guns and ammunition to raise money for state conservation efforts.

Number 3: Bill Clinton
(George H. W. Bush) won't take the lead in protecting the environment and creating new jobs in environmental technologies for the 21st century, but I will. – Bill Clinton, “A Place Called Hope” Speech, July, 1992

Clinton’s environmental record is mixed. He was hardly a full-on champion of the ecology; some diehard environmentalists might take issue with Clinton’s compromises with industrial interests, for example. Still, Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, certainly skewed green. Clinton’s administration increased the budget of the EPA and gave at least nominal support to the Kyoto Protocol. Almost 5 million acres of land were preserved under Clinton’s watch. Environmental standards were strengthened. Clinton may have sold out to business interests on a few key issues, but he still did a lot more to protect the Earth than most other presidents.

Number 2: Theodore Roosevelt
To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed. – Theodore Roosevelt, seventh State of the Union address, December, 1907

Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman, and his appreciation of the environment was a reflection of this. Roosevelt’s 1906 Conference of Governors was a milestone in the protection of America’s natural resources. In his opening address, Roosevelt said that the conference was meant to “consider the weightiest problem now before the Nation…that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue.” Roosevelt also established the National Forest Service and placed 230 million acres of land under public protection.

Number 1: Jimmy Carter
Every act of energy conservation… is more than just common sense: I tell you it is an act of patriotism. – Jimmy Carter, “Crisis of Confidence” speech, July, 1979

Along with his many other accomplishments, especially after leaving office, Jimmy Carter stands as the hands-down greenest president in US history. His presidency was faced with the historic oil crisis of 1979. In response, Carter emphasized cutting reliance on foreign oil through conservation and developing alternative energy. He famously installed solar panels on the roof of the White House (later torn down by Reagan), used a wood stove to heat his quarters and kept the White House’s thermostat at 65 degrees in the winter. Carter also passed legislation encouraging the development of renewable energy. Although his enthusiasm for coal and nuclear power might ruffle the feathers of some environmentalists, Carter still did more to raise public awareness of energy dependency and alternative energy than any other US head of state.

Let’s hope that, starting with President Obama, each subsequent resident of the Oval Office—and their counterparts around the world—surpass the accomplishments of these five until humankind again has a reverence for the Earth and its processes. Only then will we be on an ecological path that will protect our health and that of our planet. And only then will future generations be in a position to inherent the abundance we have been blessed to enjoy and all else that the Earth can sustainably offer.

Also see: EcoHearth's list of 'The Least Environmental US Presidents.'

[Please comment below if you agree or disagree with our choices—and to suggest different or additional presidents who should be on the list. - Ed.]

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Comments (1)add
Written by JamesB , February 21, 2011
Whether they have "perfect" environmental records or not, politicians who lead when it comes to protecting the environment should be honored and encouraged. This list is a step in the right direction.
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