If you love the outdoors, you may fear losing access to public lands, or rollbacks in clean water and air protection. Amidst the entrenched partisan battles, it’s easy to forget that conservation has often been a bipartisan topic. Whether you love them or hate them, these politicians have at some point done some critical work — often in unexpected ways — to protect the environment. They come from both parties, and they may not be who you think.
With one stroke of his pen, Jimmy Carter finalized protecting wild places equal to the entire state of California. On December 2nd, 1980 as he was about to leave the White House, he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, a sweeping conservation legacy that protected over 55 million acres. The names preserved by ANILCA are now common hallmarks of Alaska wildness: Misty Fjords, Admiralty Island, Wrangell-St. Elias, Kenai Fjords, Katmai, Gates of the Arctic and an expanded Denali National Park, to name a few. His push for renewable energy foresaw climate change and the viability of solar, wind, and wave energy.
George H.W. Bush
The first eight years of the 1980s weren’t great for conservation. When Ronald Reagan left the White House and his Vice President moved in, many expected more of the same. But early in his term, Bush overruled his advisors and supported a newfangled market-based policy tool to reduce acid rain. It was called “Cap-and-Trade”, and it’s a mainstay of climate change policies worldwide today. Bush used it to put the lid on sulphur dioxide emissions that were causing acid rain. Bush also supported the “no net loss” wetlands policy that led to the restoration of thousands of acres of wetlands.
If you don’t hail from New York, you may never have heard of Boehlert, a Republican Congressman in Upstate New York from the 1980s until 2007. Dubbed the “Green Hornet” for his combination of environmental legislation and willingness to put a sting in the side of his own party, Boehlert was a strong advocate for climate science and for the average fuel efficiency of cars. If you drive a hybrid, he’s one of the reasons why. Since leaving Congress, he’s worked on energy issues with a little known fellow by the name of Al Gore.
Nixon is infamous (and rightly so) for Watergate. He’s usually left off the list of environmental champions—but it’s his signature on four major pieces of environmental legislation: the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which controls air and water pollution. For his first head of the EPA, he appointed…
Nixon’s first head of the EPA, Ruckelshaus had a reputation as a no-nonsense attorney. Starting from scratch, he built the EPA’s authority in an era when dead fish lined the shores of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River had recently caught fire. He insisted—correctly—that DDT posed a greater human cancer risk than many experts thought, and insisted on banning it. He became famous later, as acting head of the FBI, for resigning as part of the “Saturday Night Massacre” when he refused to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor.
Obama’s legacy includes 22 new or enlarged National Monuments and protected 265 acres of land and water, including three Monuments that, along with adjoining national parks, make up one of the largest desert preserves in the world. One of his first pieces of legislation was the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Act, which set aside wilderness for the first time in decades. In an era of bitter divisions, the Public Lands Act passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 77–20.
Camping, hiking and playing outside make up a $646 billion industry that employs more Americans than Apple. Wyden, a Senator from Oregon, understands the economic engine of outdoor recreation better than any politician in Washington D.C. In 2016, Wyden introduced the Recreation Not Red Tape Act, which would streamline permitting, increase programs to maintain trails and campgrounds, get kids and veterans outdoors on public lands, and enlarge the Public Land Service Corps. Right now, it’s still just a bill sitting there on Capitol Hill, but maybe it will be a law someday. Wyden is currently spearheading efforts to keep the EPA’s protections on air and water strong.
No list of this type would be complete without TR. The originator of the “vigorous life,” Roosevelt created the National Wildlife System and the National Forest system, protected the Grand Canyon, enlarged Yosemite, and designated the first National Monuments. But he did far more than that. What other President went bear hunting, ditched his entourage to camp with John Muir for three days in Yosemite, and explored rivers in the Amazon? TR made the rugged outdoors fundamentally American.