Although Richard Nixon’s pre-presidential speeches and writings sometimes had passages referring to his love of the varied landscape of his native state of California, it still came as a surprise to many when, in his State of the Union address on January 22, 1970, he outlined the first steps in the series of programs that made his presidency the most significant in the history of environmental affairs since Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1965, a Gallup poll found 25 percent of Americans citing pollution and other environmental matters as constituting as an important national issue. By the end of 1969, this figure had increased by 75 percent. There were a number of reasons for the rise. Concern over the indiscriminate use of pesticides had loomed large in the national consciousness since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Environmentally minded writers and champions of “small is beautiful” such as Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold formed part of the curriculum of the “counterculture.” The nation’s embrace of suburban development and new technology in the 1950s had been replaced by apprehension about the effects of untrammeled growth on wildlife, the waterways, and the atmosphere.

As these concerns came to the fore, a movement arose which sought to address them. In the early days of 1970, plans were fully underway to celebrate the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This event was intended by its organizers to be a moment calling for new laws to guarantee clean air and water and to safeguard the integrity of natural landscapes, like forests, seas, and lakes.

Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.

President Nixon, in his First State of the Union Address, January 22, 1970.

The first mainstream politicians to embrace the Earth Day message were mostly Democratic, such as Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Senator who took the initiative among his colleagues in helping to organize events connected with the day. Soon Sen. Edmund Muskie from Maine, the 1968 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was calling for quick legislative action in the field of the environment. Liberal columnists and commentators, at the time, seemed to take it for granted that the Nixon White House would drag its feet on the matter.

But in his first annual address to Congress, RN took note of the nation’s worry over the future of its resources, and called for the passing of laws to protect the environment, pledging to use $10 billion to ensure clean air and water for Americans.

Six months later, in July 1970, RN set up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This was a Cabinet-level agency; its head reported directly to the President. $1.4 billion was redirected from other Cabinet departments for its budget (primarily the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health, Education and Welfare), and it started operations with 5,650 employees. Within a short time the EPA, under its first director William Ruckelshaus, launched a series of important initiatives. In the same year, the passage of the Clean Air Act, with the support of the White House, marked the most comprehensive antipollution legislation to date.

The President followed this with another far-sighted idea. Having grown up in a family of modest means, he was aware that visiting major national parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite was beyond the financial reach of many Americans. He therefore promoted the idea of creating new national parks from Federal land unused for other purposes, and during his Administration 642 such parks were created. He also made it a point to confer on a regular basis about the environment with two of his staffers with strong interests in the subject, chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman and aide John C. Whitaker.

In April 1971, the President marked the first anniversary of Earth Day with a proclamation establishing Earth Week, an event which helped further education and awareness of environmental issues, especially among schoolchildren.

From 1970 until the end of his Presidency, Nixon made 36 different environmental proposals, including ones addressing such issues as noise pollution and oil spills. One matter to which he devoted considerable attention, and which was close to his heart as a Californian, was the cooperation of federal and state agencies in maintaining the integrity of coastlines.

Two events marked a divergence between the President’s views and those of many environmentalists. In 1971, the EPA recommended standards for the Big Four automakers (at that time General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and AMC/Jeep) to decrease fuel emissions. Nixon felt that the requirements were too stringent, and agreed with automakers who feared that manufacturing cars to conform to these standards would raise car prices and considerably decrease sales.

And, in 1972, Nixon vetoed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments. Again, this action was motivated by concern that to enforce the legislation as written would put American manufacturers at a disadvantage compared to their overseas counterparts.

But while keeping American business competitive, the Nixon White House was also able to lay the groundwork for the effective environmental infrastructure Americans rely on today to ensure clean air, clean water, preservation of wildlife and plant life for future generations, and a safer, healthier environment.