Among Abraham Lincolns vast contributions to the betterment of humanity, one of the lesser known is his conservation record. In 1864, the first and greatest Republican president signed legislation deeding Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to California for public enjoyment and recreation.
Lincolns unprecedented action was the seed from which our national parks grew.
As president, Ulysses S. Grant reinforced Lincolns precedent by signing legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park, Americas first, in 1872.
In a rough age of no-holds-barred resource development, Lincoln and Grant showed Americans that places featuring the best of our nations heritage should be preserved for the benefit of future generations.
Yosemite National Park (pictured here) is one of the 10 most visited national parks in the United States.
Benjamin Harrison is one of those obscure 19th century presidents who wore a lot of facial hair and didnt leave much of a mark on history.
Give Harrison credit, however, for signing into law the 1890 Forest Reserve Act, which authorized the establishment of national forests for public uses rather than pell-mell exploitation. The federal governments forest management record has been checkered, but imagine what would have happened in the laws absence.
The next time you go snowshoeing in the White River National Forest or rafting in the Monongahela, thank Harrison for his foresight.
The Antiquities Act
In 1906, a Republican Congress passed legislation to stop looting of historically significant artifacts on public lands. The law authorized the president to establish national monuments to protect "objects of historic or scientific interest."
Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill into law and ran with it, establishing monuments protecting Devils Tower, the Grand Canyon, Mount Lassen and other rather large "objects."
TRs precedent for expansive use of the Antiquities Act was followed by successors in both parties, who used the law to protect dozens of natural wonders and archaeological treasures. Its not too early for President Obama to make his mark with one of Americas most powerful conservation laws.
The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt
Has there ever been a president who knew more and cared more about the natural world than Theodore Roosevelt?
As a boy, young "Teedie" wrote a book about insects and opened a natural history museum in his bedroom. As a grieving widower, TR escaped to Dakota Territory, immersed himself in its wildness, and began formulating his deep thinking about conservation and the national good.
As president, Roosevelt established 155 national forests, two-thirds of the present system, five national parks, 18 national monuments and 55 bird and game preserves, the cornerstones of our national wildlife refuge system.
More than anyone else, Roosevelt made stewardship of our natural commons an enduring national priority.
The Presidency of Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon was the kind of guy who took walks on the beaches in dress shoes. A nature boy, he was not.
But he had a keen sense of political tides. When Russell Train, later EPAs second administrator, urged him to make the environment a high priority, Nixon took the advice.
1970 was a banner year for Nixons environmental achievements. On New Years Day, Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. Six weeks later, he put a sweeping legislative program of clean air and water, waste reduction and open space acquisition before Congress. Six months later, Nixon established EPA. And on New Years Eve, Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law.
Out of the ruins of Nixons presidency, a renewed environmental ethic was born.
The Congressional Career of John Saylor
John Saylor represented Pennsylvania in Congress from 1949 to 1973.
Saylor integrated religious faith, patriotism and conservation into a broad conservative philosophy that valued stewardship for showing love of country and veneration of creation.
Saylor kept dams out of Dinosaur National Monument (pictured here) and the Grand Canyon. He crusaded for protecting wild rivers and expanding national parks. And, he was the Republican co-sponsor of the Wilderness Act of 1964, one of the great conservation achievements of the 20th century.
When he died in office, Saylor was gearing up for the great battle to protect Alaskas wilderness. The battle was won, but no doubt it would have been easier if Saylor had been in the thick of it.
The Alaska Lands Act
The Alaska Lands Act is the single largest land protection achievement in U.S. history. Protection of an overpowering wild landscape of remote mountains, vast forests and free-flowing rivers was secured for future generations in 1980, thanks partly to Senator William Roth of Delaware.
Roth is perhaps better known as the author of the Roth IRA retirement plan. Roth, however, played a critical role in the bipartisan coalition that beat back fierce opposition to the Alaska lands bill from extractive industries and from his fellow Republicans.
Later, with the bill safely passed, Roth sponsored legislation to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuges coastal plain as wilderness, a cause he championed throughout his remaining years in Congress.
The Gerald Ford CAFE
The 1973-74 energy crisis was a shock unlike any America had ever experienced.
The glory days of cheap, endless gasoline were over. Three decades later, the nation still struggles with energy. But Gerald Ford started the U.S. down the long road to a rational energy policy, by signing, in 1975, a bill containing his proposal for motor vehicle fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards.
More than 30 years later, CAFE saves millions of barrels of oil per day. If the federal government, in spite of itself, finally adopts a strategic energy and climate stewardship policy, Gerald Fords CAFE standards will be a critical part of its foundation.
The Montreal Protocol
Ronald Reagan faced a divided house. Some in his administration wanted nothing to do with a treaty to phase out industrial chemicals that, evidence showed, depleted the atmospheres protective ozone layer.
EPA and the State Department pushed back against the anti-regulatory ideologues, arguing that public health and Americas international standing was at stake.
Reagan sided with his scientists and diplomats, and personally ordered them to negotiate a strong treaty. The resulting 1987 Montreal Protocol, which Reagan called a "monumental achievement," was the most important international environmental agreement in history.
A Blue Water Legacy
George W. Bush will be a bête noire of the conservation movement for generations. His administrations retrograde energy plans, attempted weakening of the Clean Air Act, unbalanced land management policies and much else are not easily forgotten.
And yet ... those four national monuments that he established out in the Pacific Ocean are not easily forgotten either. Bush took Theodore Roosevelts Antiquities Act precedent much further than any of his predecessors by establishing marine preserves that cover nearly 215 million acres, big enough to swallow Bushs home state of Texas, plus Oklahoma.
Ocean stewardship is the next big frontier for conservation. George W. Bush, many warts and all, pointed the way forward.