I have become…convinced that the 1970’s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.
—President Nixon’s Signing Statement for the National Environmental Policy Act,             1 January 1970

One of the most important, forward-thinking, and lasting achievements of the Nixon administration has been its environmental legacy.  RN, typically, took a serious, practical, and comprehensive approach to this emerging issue.

That is why he chose to sign the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 on 1 January 1970, at the beginning of a new decade and the start of the second year of his presidency.  The bill was largely the work of Democratic Senator Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson of Washington State; RN embraced it and, before very long, greatly expanded on it.

In fact, he felt so strongly about the environment as a landmark issue that he had wanted to sign the bill at midnight on 31 December — but Bob Haldeman pointed out that an early morning ceremony would make more sense in terms of the reporters’ and staff’s plans for New Year’s Eve.

So the signing was at 10 am on New Year’s Day in the President’s office at the Western White House in San Clemente.

And RN emphasized its importance to him by prefacing the signing with some remarks.  He was at ease —he even joked a bit with the reporters— but there was no mistaking how seriously he took the legislation and the occasion:

As you know, the bill we are signing today is the environmental bill. There is one line in there that I am particularly stimulated by, when I said we had to work on the environment because it is now or never.

If you look ahead 10 years, you project population growth, car growth, and that means, of course, smog growth, water pollution, and the rest.

An area like this will be unfit for living; New York will be, Philadelphia, and, of course, 75 percent of the people will be living in areas like this.

So unless we start moving on it now-there is a lead time–unless we move on it now, believe me, we will not have an opportunity to do it later, because then when people have millions more automobiles, and, of course, the waters and so forth developing in the way that they do without plants for purification, once the damage is done, it is much harder to turn it around. It is going to be hard as it is.

That is why I indicate here that a major goal, when you talk about New Year’s resolutions, I wouldn’t say for the next year but for the next 10 years–and I don’t mean that I intend to run for a third term–for the next 10 years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air, the water, and that, of course, means moving also on the broader problems of population congestion, transport, and the like.

A Signing Statement was also issued on 1 January, and it was equally eloquent and no less urgent.  RN graciously credited the sponsors of the bill, but he also served notice that now his administration intended to do something about the issue — not just to talk about doing something.

It is particularly fitting that my first official act in this new decade is to approve the National Environmental Policy Act.

The past year has seen the creation of a President’s Cabinet committee on environmental quality, and we have devoted many hours to the pressing problems of pollution control, airport location, wilderness preservation, highway construction, and population trends.

By my participation in these efforts I have become further convinced that the 1970’s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.

I, therefore, commend the Congress and particularly the sponsors of this bill, Senators Stevens and Jackson and Representative Dingell, for this clear legislative policy declaration. Under the provisions of this law a three-member council of environmental advisers will be appointed. I anticipate that they will occupy the same close advisory relation to the President that the Council of Economic Advisers does in fiscal and monetary matters. The environmental advisers will be assisted by a compact staff in keeping me thoroughly posted on current problems and advising me on how the Federal Government can act to solve them.

In the near future I will forward to the Senate names of highly qualified individuals to help both the Cabinet and me in the critical decisions that will affect the quality of life in the United States for years to come. I will then take the necessary executive action to reconstitute the Cabinet committee and its staff to avoid duplication of function.

On the latter point, I know that the Congress has before it a proposal to establish yet another staff organization to deal with environmental problems in the Executive Office of the President. I believe this would be a mistake.

No matter how pressing the problem, to over-organize, to over-staff, or to compound the levels of review and advice seldom brings earlier or better results.

We are most interested in results. The act I have signed gives us an adequate organization and a good statement of direction. We are determined that the decade of the seventies will be known as the time when this country regained a productive harmony between man and nature.

Later in January, RN devoted a considerable portion of his State of the Union Message to his proposed environmental legislation.

In February, he submitted to Congress the most comprehensive message on the environment ever proposed by a President of the United States.

In March he upgraded the Environmental Quality Council to the status of a Cabinet Committee on the Environment.

In July he created the EPA.

And —as a fitting bookend to 1970— on 31 December, he signed the Clean Air Act, which has been called one of the most signifiant pieces of environmental legislation ever passed.

All these —and the other environmental landmarks throughout 1970 will be considered chronologically here at TNN throughout 2010.

One of the speakers at the first Nixon Legacy Forum — to be held in the East Room of the Library in Yorba Linda next Friday (8 January, from 1.30-3.30 PM)— will be the Hon. John C Whitaker.   John, who was one of RN’s closest friends and advisers from the early 1960s, was a scientist and engineer by training.  He concentrated on environmental issues and policies as Associate Director of the Domestic Council (1969-1972) and as Undersecretary of the Interior (1973-1975).  He is the author of Striking a Balance: Environment and Natural Resource Policy in the Nixon-Ford Administrations.  At the Legacy Forum he will discuss RN’s environmental record.

The Nixon Legacy Forums are jointly sponsored by the Richard Nixon Foundation and the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, and are free and open to the public.