Earth Day is a time to focus on the environment. These days, however, it is hard to discuss the topic in the US without politics coming into play. While there have always been debates about land and resource uses, the issue today is more polarized then ever with the division almost always running down party lines. Those in favor of environmental protection and conservation are usually Democrats and those pushing for economic and commercial development tend to be Republicans. This type of tribal divide, however, was not always the case. There is a long history of Republicans taking action to protect the environment.
In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, signed the Yosemite Land Grant. This piece of legislation gave Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. Championed by Senator John Conness (R-CA), it was first time in US history that land was designated for preservation and public use.
This historic legislation set the precedent for Yellowstone, which spreads across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to become this country’s first official National Park in 1872. Established by Congress, it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican. Yosemite eventually also became a National Park in 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison, also a Republican.
Coming into office in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican from NY, became known as the “Conservation President.” Using the power of the presidency, he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land. According to the NPS, this included the establishment of 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.
While also steadfast in his belief about utilizing the country’s natural resources, he understood the necessity of ensuring their sustainability. As such, he created the US Forest Service in 1905 as a division of the Department of Agriculture. He wanted to conserve forests for continued use.
By 1916, there were 35 National Parks and monuments across the US. To manage them all, President Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat – signed the Organics Act, creating the National Parks Service as a bureau within the Department of the Interior.
In the 1970’s, the environment returned to the national agenda, but with a new focus. After the 1969 Cuyahoga River fiire and the oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA, the rampant industrial pollution and deterioration of the nation’s natural environment became apparent. These human-caused disasters occurred around the same time as the publication of Earth Rise, a photograph taken by NASA astronaut William Anders as he looked back toward the planet. The image was a powerful reminder of how also fragile and unique the Earth really is. Together, these events led to the first Earth Day in 1970, where millions of people across the US came out to demand protection for the environment. As a result, President Richard Nixon – a Republican – created the EPA. Soon afterwards, his administration passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
By the 1980’s, the hole in the ozone became an international environmental concern because of the adverse effects it could have on human health and the environment. Under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, governments around the globe agreed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. When released into the atmosphere, these gases, formerly found in aerosol spray cans and refrigerants, reduced the ozone’s capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed the international agreement in 1988.
In the 1990s, climate change was beginning to be recognized as a serious environmental problem. To address this issue, the UN organized the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, President George HW Bush – a Republican – signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This international environmental treaty was the first step on the long and often bumpy road toward the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.
The current Republican administration, however, has called climate change a “hoax”. It has announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and is rolling back the nation’s Clean Power Plan. So, it is safe to say that the Republican Party has been stepping back from its green legacy in recent years. In fact, we often hear Republican politicians and pundits say things like environmental regulation is detrimental to the economy.
History, however, has shown this argument to be largely false. In the past, some people saw National Parks as government land grabs that would hinder development. Today, they are among the most beloved landscapes in the country. They also generate millions of dollars every year from tourism for the local businesses that surround them. Regulations for clean air and water also had many positive outcomes. Not the least of which are the improved health of millions of Americans and the reclamation of polluted areas now open to new uses and clean sustainable development.
The lessons of history are clear. So, why is there such a polarized divide in this country over environmental issues? Who is benefiting from this rift? These are some important questions to consider not just on Earth Day, but everyday. After all, as the saying goes, everyday is Earth Day.
Earth Rise. Credit: William Anders/NASA