Environmental conservation was at the forefront of Richard Nixon’s domestic legislative agenda.
In his 1971 State of the Union message, RN declared: “I will propose programs to make better use of our land, to encourage a balanced national growth–growth that will revitalize our rural heartland and enhance the quality of life in America. And not only to meet today’s needs but to anticipate those of tomorrow, I will put forward the most extensive program ever proposed by a President of the United States to expand the Nation’s parks, recreation areas, open spaces, in a way that truly brings parks to the people where the people are. For only if we leave a legacy of parks will the next generation have parks to enjoy.”

He implored Congress to make environmental protection a prominent issue, saying: “This can be the Congress that pressed forward the rescue of our environment, and established for the next generation an enduring legacy of parks for the people.”

In his special message to Congress proposing the Legacy of Parks program, RN said: “Merely acquiring land for open space and recreation is not enough. We must bring parks to where the people are so that everyone has access to nearby recreational areas. In my budget for 1972, I have proposed a new “Legacy of Parks” program which will help States and local government provide parks and recreation areas, not just for today’s Americans but for tomorrow’s as well. Only if we set aside and develop such recreation areas now can we ensure that they will be available for future generations.

As part of this legacy, I have requested a $200 million appropriation to begin a new program for the acquisition and development of additional park lands in urban areas. To be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, this would include provision for facilities such as swimming pools to add to the use and enjoyment of these parks.

“Also, I have recommended in my 1972 budget that the appropriation for the Land and Water Conservation Fund be increased to $380 million, permitting the continued acquisition of Federal parks and recreation areas as well as an expanded State grant program. However, because of the way in which these State grant funds were allocated over the past five years, a relatively small percentage has been used for the purchase and development of recreational facilities in and near urban areas. The allocation formula should be changed to ensure that more parks will be developed in and near our urban areas.”

This “Legacy of Parks” became a substantial Nixon Administration initiative in its own right. The program took existing federal land and placed it in possession of the states, whereby the states would transform it into protected land areas for recreational or historical purposes. By the late 1970s, over 80,000 acres of land were converted into over 640 new parks. Many featured playgrounds, forests, wilderness areas, jogging paths, and bicycle trails. Land that benefited from this project includes Michigan’s Fort Custer Recreation Area and New Jersey and New York’s Gateway National Recreation Area. They ranged anywhere in size from under 20 acres to over 20,000 acres.

First Lady Pat Nixon undertook a cross-country trip to kick off the Legacy of Parks program in August 1971. She presided over a ceremony at the U.S.-Mexican border in San Diego, California, to turn a 370-acre former naval base into Border Field State Park. Hundreds of Mexicans watched from the other side of a barbed wire fence, so in her remarks, Mrs. Nixon ordered that the fence be cut down for she said that there was no need for a barrier that “separates the people of two such friendly nations.”

Those in Southern California should be particularly thankful for the Legacy of Parks program. In 1969, the Nixons purchased a home overlooking the sea in San Clemente, California, which bordered the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. As a part of the Legacy of Parks, RN directed the Secretary of Defense to allocate 6 miles of the Pendleton beach for public use. Thus beaches including Trestles, Califia, and the San Clemente State Beach were established.

In a 1971 statement by RN released on the Legacy of Parks program, he said: “It is essential that our system of parks satisfy both the casual tourist and the avid outdoorsman, that we have places where families can meet other families and places where people can be alone.” Parks were thus brought to urban places, where people of all walks of life could enjoy them. The Legacy of Parks program was the most significant environmental conservation program of the 20th century.