Mention Ronald Reagan to an avowed environmentalist, and you’ll generally elicit a groan. In the conventional telling, the Gipper appointed right-wing extremists to key environmental positions and proceeded to give timber companies and energy interests a free hand to despoil nature. Had Congress not stopped him, the tale goes, all of the environmental progress of the 1970s would have been swept away in the 1980s.
This tale fits certain historical narratives, and Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, arguably helped promote it by allowing his own appointees, some of them drawn from the ranks of professional environmentalists, to criticize the Reagan administration and its policies.
Reagan’s actual environmental record is quite a bit more nuanced. It’s true he did not follow the command-and-control regulatory approach favored by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, or even fellow California Republican Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. But the approach Reagan did take—endeavoring to protect nature without expanding government or hurting the economy—may offer a blueprint, particularly in these times of sharp partisan division, for a conservation agenda that small government conservatives, libertarians, and conservationists alike can embrace.
The enduring legacy of Reagan’s conservation agenda is a set of approaches that flowed directly out of, rather than in spite of, his free-market ideology and were implemented, in part, by those people derided as dangerous “ideologues.” They include limiting government subsidies to all manner of environmental destruction; ensuring that costs are attached to environmentally harmful activities; and opening public lands for multiple uses.
Contrary to the myth of the Reagan era as one of environmental depredation, objective metrics demonstrate how well these approaches worked. Under Reagan’s leadership, new lead production was virtually eliminated. Carbon monoxide emissions fell by roughly a quarter, and particulate pollution was reduced 40 percent. Reagan pushed for and signed the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-layer-depleting, climate change-promoting chlorofluorocarbons. His administration did the initial work on a “cap and trade” system to control acid rain that ultimately was implemented during the George H. W. Bush administration.
A classic example of Reagan’s approach can be found in the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which the president signed in 1982. The law established the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS), a zone that today encompasses 273 million acres of land (an area larger than all but one national park in the lower 48 states) in which federal subsidies to new development—notably, subsidies for roads, housing, and flood insurance—are forbidden. Private interests may still develop the land but must do so without a penny of federal money. It is estimated the law has saved taxpayers
$1 billion since its enactment.
A similar approach was applied in the 1985 farm bill, which required farmers receiving federal subsidies to comply with various conservation standards before they could cultivate erosion-prone soils and forbade the use of federal money to drain wetlands. These standards, currently under fire as Congress considers a huge new farm bill, have saved money while avoiding hundreds of millions of tons of soil erosion and protecting millions of acres of wetlands.
While the acid rain efforts made polluters pay their own costs, the 1986 Water Resources Development Act included the administration’s proposal to begin charging user fees for the inland waterway system in the form of an excise tax on diesel fuel sold in marine terminals. While the fees haven’t kept up with inflation, they clearly played a role in discouraging wasteful and destructive lock, dam, and canal projects.
“Everybody was playing pork barrel before the fees,” explains David Conrad, a longtime water policy consultant who has worked with just about every major environmental organization. “Reagan and his people were gutsy. They drew the line.”
In addition to creating the CBRS, Reagan signed bills designating more than 10 million acres of wilderness, the highest level of protection available. But he and his appointees embraced a “multi-use” strategy for public lands that balanced conservation with other uses. Rather than continue the trend of creating more national parks than the government could effectively maintain, significant resources were focused on improving facilities and access in the existing parks.
“He understood how public lands impacted the individual soul and spirit,” says Rob Sisson, the president of ConservAmerica, previously known as Republicans for Environmental Protection. “He would never lock up enough land to satisfy the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club. But he certainly believed in it.”
At the same time, he liberalized hunting and fishing on federal land and opened previously protected land—especially areas with no particular inherent beauty—to mineral exploration.
By no means was Reagan’s environmental record spotless. Indeed, among the biggest blemishes on that record are leases that sold natural resources on public land at hard-to-justify bargain basement prices. He also vetoed Clean Water Act enhancements that, when later implemented over his veto, resulted in enormous pollution reductions in streams and rivers.
His environmental appointees were also hit and miss, particularly the earlier ones. EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch mismanaged the agency. Interior secretary James Watt (who did help push for the CBRS) turned out to be a political liability and ended up having to resign after noting in public that a coal-leasing panel was made up of “a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.”
On those few matters where environmentalists do sometimes give Reagan credit, they often learn the wrong lessons. The Montreal Protocol wasn’t successful because it was an international agreement negotiated partly under United Nations auspices. It was successful because it relied on technology, gradualism, and smart policies, rather than heavy-handed regulation, to deal with a problem. And while cap and trade was a near-perfect system for fighting acid rain—a problem that resulted from fewer than 100 easy-to-identify industrial facilities—experience in the European Union has proven that it’s unworkably complex as a means of dealing with vastly more prevalent sources of carbon.
But taken as a whole, Reagan’s environmental legacy includes millions of acres of protected land and significant cuts in pollution. In part because of his ideology, he compiled a generally admirable environmental record that offers important lessons for those who seek to protect the environment while containing the size and scope of government.