Environment Work by Nixon later undone by Reagan

Columnist Carl Tate has on several occasions (including News Virginian, Apr 28, 2013) referred to President Nixon’s important contributions to the environmental cause – pushing for and signing into law the National Environmental Policy Act, creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and further landmark legislation including the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.  These credits to Mr. Nixon are correct and welcome.

Tate has also commented that the environmental cause has advanced very little since Nixon.  Are we then to conclude that results of the environmental movement to date are solely a gift from the Republican Party?  Hardly.

The missing link is this: What Richard Nixon gave to the environmental cause, Ronald Reagan did much to take away. Some of his appointees have been widely recognized as major influences reversing Nixon’s environmental accomplishments.

I served under one of these appointees, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, as chief of the office of environmental affairs in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and here I observed reversals of Nixon’s environmental accomplishments.

The USGS program to analyze environmental impacts of open-pit coal mining on the public lands was stopped in 1982 when Mr. Watt decided that, henceforth, such mining would be considered as having no significant environmental impact.

Earlier, the USGS furnished scientific information that narrowly averted completion of a nuclear reactor being built at Bodega Head, California, within a few hundred yards of the notorious San Andreas Fault, creator of major earthquakes. We began mapping a variety of geologic hazards (earthquakes, landslides, etc.) that deserved consideration in land-use planning. This stopped in 1982, when Deputy Assistant Secretary William Perry Pendley informed us that the Department did not want Washington bureaucrats to be involved in land-use decisions; the decisions should be based solely on free-market forces.

Within Mr. Reagan’s still-popular policies, we should be aware that this negative environmental stance continues to deter recovery and progress in the cause that Mr. Nixon aided.

(The above was published March 1, 2014, in the Waynesboro VA News Virginian, as a Letter to the Editor.)