1. The Father of a Modern Movement
In many ways, being green has never been easier, especially for politicians. The vast majority of Americans now say environmental protection is important to them, and few would vote for a leader who explicitly claims to be "anti-environment."
But America's highest office has long had a relationship to the planet that is anything but straightforward. Given enormous social, economic and political changes in our nation's history, ranking presidents on green criteria is no easy task. This list couldn't possibly reflect all the issues involved, but it is a subjective look at highlights in the evolution of environmental policy and protection.
To begin, when most Americans think of green presidents, they probably envision Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). "TR" consistently lobbied Congress for wilderness protection, used the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 to set aside 150 million acres of timberland as public domains, and oversaw creation of the U.S. Forest Service. Roosevelt also created 50 wildlife refuges and five national parks.
Beyond those accomplishments, TR is well remembered as popularizing the ideas of good resource stewardship and respect for nature. That's not to say everything was idyllic in those years of heavy logging, mining, urbanization and rapid human expansion, but seeds of consciousness were sown.
2. The Sweater-Wearing Efficiency Expert
In response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) created the Department of Energy in 1977, with a key goal being the establishment of a national energy policy that promoted clean and alternative fuels. Carter famously installed solar panels on the White House roof and set the mansion's thermostats at 68 degrees to save energy.
Carter's 1977 speech calling on the country to drastically ramp up energy efficiency and conservation is truly inspiring and ahead of its time. Backing that up, in 1979, Carter implemented "corporate average fuel economy" (CAFE) standards that mandated fuel-efficient cars -- although those standards would soon be relaxed.
President Carter also oversaw passage of a number of other important laws, including the Soil and Water Conservation Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Antarctic Conservation Act, the Endangered American Wilderness Act and the Superfund Act (remember when laws that sound green actually were green?). Tighter amendments were passed on the Clean Air Act, and the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act conserved more than 100 million acres and 26 rivers in America's Last Frontier.
Since leaving office, Carter has won world renown for his humanitarian work, particularly through Habitat for Humanity, which has recently been going green and promoting green building.
3. The Scientist, Philosopher and Idealist
Brilliant Renaissance man Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) is well known as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Few also know that Jefferson was an avid botanist, scientist, architect, inventor, planner and philosopher (as well as slave owner, unfortunately). Jefferson believed in respecting and working with nature, and envisioned a society of small farmers living in harmony with the environment.
As president Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on a groundbreaking voyage of exploration and research across America, after having secured the Louisiana Purchase. So little was known about the continent by whites that the explorers were asked to look for evidence of still-living wooly mammoths. Lewis and Clark then became the first to document many of America's indigenous species, as well as peoples.
Thomas Jefferson also founded a pioneering institution of higher learning, the University of Virginia, and advocated for good public education, including science. He also thought corporate power should be kept in check.
4. Not Perfect But Still Pretty Good
Environmentalists often sigh when they muse on Bill Clinton's legacy (1993-2001), which isn't as green as one might hope, particularly since he had Al Gore as Vice President. During the Clinton years resource extraction on public lands proceeded at record pace. The administration is also blamed for being unable to secure support for the Kyoto Protocol or other major efforts to prevent global warming.
Clinton did get quite a number of things done, however. He used executive orders to create 17 new national monuments, and expand four more, preserving more than 4.6 million acres, more than any other administration. Clinton also increased protection for wetlands and old-growth forests and finalized a sweeping rule that banned road building on nearly 60 million acres of wilderness in national forests. The administration also extended an existing moratorium on offshore oil leases -- something that is now hotly debated.
Clinton did secure more than $3 billion -- a 50% increase in annual funding -- to research and develop clean energy technologies. He also strengthened the Drinking Water Act, advanced cleanup of Superfund sites, and bolstered the EPA's ability to go after polluters (something else that wouldn't last).
5. The Reluctant Environmentalist
Richard Nixon (1969-1974) was president during tumultuous times, and is consistently rated as one of the country's most disliked leaders, in no small part because of his role in the Watergate scandal. But Richard Nixon had also faced tremendous pressure to do something for the environment, after 20 million people took to the streets on Earth Day in 1970.
Responding to a 60s-era public, Nixon signed the bills that established the Environmental Protection Agency and the landmark Clean Air Act. Going further, in 1972 Nixon signed the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Ocean Dumping Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungide, Rodenticide Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Nixon's term also saw passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.
6. The Soil Savior
Inheriting a deeply troubled country in the throes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) showed innovative leadership. In order to put people to work and improve and protect the landscape, FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Part of his New Deal, more than 2.5 million Americans planted millions of trees, opened summer camps, improved parks and trails, battled soil erosion and safeguarded other infrastructure and the environment.
FDR's terms also saw creation of the Soil Conservation Service and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Soil began to be viewed as an invaluable, and largely non-renewable, resource, and measures were taken to promote long-term productivity and soil health. The country truly began to realize the importance of protecting natural wealth for future generations.
7. The Great Unifier
Consistently rated as America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) is best known for leading the country through the Civil War and ending slavery. Few people also know that the "Rail Splitter" did quite a bit to protect the environment as well.
Lincoln established California's spectacular Yosemite Valley and its Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias as a public trust, marking the first time land was set aside specifically for public enjoyment (and laying the groundwork for the national parks system).
In 1862 Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1863 he authorized the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences, which would go on to lead the world in promoting and fostering innovation.
8. The Greenest First Lady
Controversial for his authoritative style and role in the Vietnam War, Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) also spearheaded civil rights laws, and his "Great Society" bolstered education and established Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs, as well as several environmental initiatives.
Johnson's policies supported urban renewal, beautification and conservation. In 1964 the president signed the Wilderness Act, which was written by the Wilderness Society, and which protected more than 9 million acres of federal land. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided matching grants for large-scale rail projects.
These days, greens probably remember LBJ best for his wife, the venerable Lady Bird Johnson, who tirelessly advocated for protection of natural resources. The First Lady promoted parks and beautification projects, fought to restrict billboards and worked to protect and plant millions of wildflowers. She is famous for saying "where flowers bloom, so does hope." Lady Bird continued her conservation work until she died in 2007.
9. The Well-Meaning Progressive
Often regarded as among the brightest presidents, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) had been a leading intellectual of the Progressive Era. He led a Democratic Congress to pass major legislation that included the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act and the Federal Reserve System.
Wilson oversaw creation of the National Park Service in 1916, which has long been considered one of the great treasures of the nation. He also spearheaded the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established cooperative extension services through the land-grant universities to disseminate information on agriculture and other topics.
Wilson's anti-trust and labor laws probably helped set the stage for future environmental regulations, by increasing government oversight of corporate America.
10. Laying the Foundations
Like many Americans at the time, John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) was reportedly influenced by Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book Silent Spring. As a result the president established a committee to investigate the impacts of pesticides on health and the environment. The subsequent report was critical of the industry and lax government policies.
This investigation would help lay the groundwork for the establishment of the EPA and modern environmental protection laws.
JFK's brother (and attorney general) Robert F. Kennedy spoke passionately about the need to curtail consumption and protect the planet in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated. Today, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. serves as one of the country's leading advocate lawyers and environmentalists.
What Will Be President Obama's Legacy?
It's too early to judge Obama's full environmental record, but so far his administration has successfully rolled back some Bush-era challenges (such as the Global Gag Rule on family planning aid and an attempted sell-off of "roadless" wilderness areas). Obama's EPA under Lisa Jackson has returned to the business of fining polluters and attempting to address global warming.
Many greens, international leaders and global citizens are deeply disappointed that Obama has failed to show strong leadership on aggressive mitigation of climate change, though Obama supporters are quick to point fingers at vehement opposition from the GOP. Similarly, the president has not been able to stop the mountaintop removal mining juggernaut. For their part, the Center for Biological Diversity gave Obama a grade of C- for the first half of his term, also citing the administration's failure to ban lead ammunition and fishing tackle and for only listing eight new endangered species in the lower 48.
Obama has earned praise for supporting electric vehicles and clean energy, although actual progress remains to be seen, given budgetary woes, political bickering and the entrenched power of fossil fuels.