Richard Nixon’s other legacy: The environment

Area conservationists celebrate landmark legislation on 50th anniversary of Nixon’s inauguration


It’s hard to think of Richard M. Nixon without immediately thinking of how his doomed presidency ended. Fifty years later, few recall the administration’s role in creating legislation that designate the controversial politician as perhaps the nation’s greatest environmental president.

“You could make a very good cogent argument that the [Nixon] administration has done more for the United States environmental movement than any administration,” said Todd Johnson, park ranger at the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

Nixon signed 14 important pieces of environmental legislation during his five and a half years, including the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Conservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. They are bills that continue to play a big part in Wyoming’s discussions about public lands, setting the framework for discussions about how national forests and parks can be used and guiding the management of species like grizzly bears.

The Environmental Protection Agency was also created during Nixon’s tenure.

Johnson spoke at Northwest College Thursday as part of his historical lecture series. The Nixon administration, as a subject, is a hard sell to audiences. But his subject title, “Richard Nixon… the environmentalist?” drew in several curious about a subject overshadowed by the work of Nixon’s “plumbers” at the Watergate Hotel and the Vietnam War.

Johnson was quick to say that Nixon cared little about environmental issues. Rather, in an attempt to court voters during the environmental revolution of the late 1960s and 70s, Nixon gave environmentally sensitive appointees the opportunity to create legislation. And although his political opponents started the initiatives, the Republican president claimed credit for the protections for the environment still in effect today.

Public opinion at the time was “radically changing,” Johnson said. By the end of the 60s, plans were being made to designate April 22 as national Earth Day. More than 20 million Americans joined in the celebration, demonstrating for environmental protections. Nixon was looking forward to the 1972 election, anticipating a run against Democrats who were being viewed favorably as environmentalists.

Nixon appointees Walter Hickel, Russell Train, William Ruckelshaus, John Whitaker and John Ehrlichman worked to create the EPA and quickly pass the historic policies and legislative regulations. Included in the appointments was then-32-year-old David D. Dominick, of Cody. Dominick was sworn in as commissioner of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration in 1969 and served through 1971.

He eventually had a budget of $11.5 billion (for a four-year period) and led an army of federal employees 5,000 strong. He was also appointed assistant administrator for hazardous materials control in the Environmental Protection Agency from 1971 to 1973.

“No administration, before or since, has brought such progress to the multiple issues of environmental quality,” Dominick wrote in his Master of Arts dissertation at Utah State University on the subject in 1999.

Dominick, who also has a degree in anthropology from Yale and a law degree from the University of Colorado, is quick to point out the commitment of Nixon’s team to the environment.

“The quality of the leaders chosen within the administration helps explain the dichotomy between a negative president and the environmental reform accomplished by his government agencies,” he said.

Ehrlichman served 18 months in federal prison for his part in the Watergate scandal, but he should have his face on “the environmental movement’s Mount Rushmore,” Johnson said. Ehrlichman was Nixon’s counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs. He was instrumental in developing the EPA and several of the administration’s policies.

Johnson also credited Dominick with important work, including his efforts to ban DDT despite objections from Nixon. One of the EPA’s first acts was to outlaw DDT, out of concern for the environment and human health. The pesticide was blamed for severe declines in bald eagle populations due to thinning eggshells. Since DDT was banned, bald eagles have made a dramatic recovery.

But more than anything, Johnson said the attitudes of American citizens opened the door for important environmental legislation.

“People said, ‘We need to be able to react to what’s happening to our environment,’” he summarized.

Without the opinion of the electorate and environmentally conscious appointees, the polarizing president wouldn’t have considered the efforts important. Nixon rarely spoke of the environment after his term, and when he did, it was often disparagingly, Dominick wrote.

Dominick is proud of his role in the administration and what they were able to accomplish in such a short time. But he’s worried about the future of some of the legislation and the effects on the environment.

“We need the leadership to [protect the environment] and we’re certainly not getting it from this administration,” Dominick, now 81, said in a phone interview Monday.

“This administration is doing nothing but bad for the environment,” he said.