When it comes to earth-friendly causes, our country’s 44 commanders-in-chief have been a mixed bag. Some have spearheaded revolutionary pieces of green legislation,championed federal agencies aimed at conserving natural resources, and instituted a widespread appreciation of and concern for the environment. Others… not so much. Here are some of the best and worst presidents in terms of stewardship and eco-awareness; in the sake of remaining somewhat apolitical, the last five presidents (Reagan through Obama) were not considered for this list.
BEST: Teddy Roosevelt (1901-09)
At the age of 29, Theodore Roosevelt co-founded the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization that, among other things, sought to protect Yellowstone from commercial encroachment. Teddy was, in fact, one of the nation’s first prominent stewards, and upon entering the White House in 1901 he made environmental affairs a top priority for his administration. During his two terms in office, the federally protected areas he introduced included Grand Canyon National Monument, Crater Lake National Park and Pelican Island Bird Reservation in Florida. He also signed into law the Antiquities Act that allowed federal agencies to stake protective claims on parks, historic sites, and other monuments. Yes, he is known to have visited Africa to hunt big game from time to time — but he benefitted the scientific community by bringing home many exotic specimens from his travels.
BEST: Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)
In addition to freeing the slaves and establishing Thanksgiving as a holiday, Lincoln certainly did his part to protect the environment. In 1862, he established the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide support for American farmers, which at the time comprised roughly 90 percent of the country’s population. That same year, his Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act created grant programs for agricultural colleges. And less than a year before his death, Honest Abe signed the Yosemite Grant to federally protect an attractive tract of California wilderness that shared its name; this measure was an instrumental precursor to the creation of the National Park Service decades later.
BEST: Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45)
FDR did much more than benefit the environment; in the shadow of the Great Depression, he greatly improved the U.S. economy by establishing nature beautification programs and hiring unemployed individuals. His most fruitful effort, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), employed roughly 2.5 million people between 1933 and 1945; CCC workers built trails, cleared land for summer camps, and planted trees. FDR also passed the Soil Conservation Service Act and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act during his presidency.
BEST: Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
He only served one term and it was widely regarded as a failure (no thanks to the Iran hostage situation), but Jimmy Carter’s presidency was one of the most environmentally friendly administrations in history. He launched the Department of Energy during his first year in office, and his subsequent contributions (with a little help from Congress) included the Soil and Water Conservation Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Antarctic Conservation Act, and the Endangered American Wilderness Act. In 1980, months before Ronald Reagan defeated him in the presidential election, Carter passed the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act, thereby bestowing protected status on roughly than 100 million acres of land. And as anyone who watches the news can attest, ol’ Jimmy has remained steadfast in his green advocacy throughout his post-presidential years.
BEST: Richard Nixon (1969-74)
Say what you will about Tricky Dick — he did his part to save Mother Nature at a time when most politicians couldn’t be bothered with green causes. Within two years of being sworn into office, he passed the Clean Air Act, established the Environmental Protection Agency, and presided over the first Earth Day. He was also instrumental in the adoption of the National Environmental Policy Act, which thereby required federally funded projects to produce environmental impact statements. But it was during his last three years in the White House that Nixon really went nuts; he passed no fewer than a dozen pieces of legislation aimed at everything from insecticide restrictions to marine habitat restoration to the provision of safe drinking water. He might have accomplished more during his second term — you know, if he hadn’t broken the law and resigned in disgrace.
BEST: Woodrow Wilson (1912-20)
Teddy Roosevelt gets most of the credit for creating the National Park Service, but the agency wasn’t actually installed until 1916, during Woodrow Wilson’s second term. Prior to that, the Department of Interior oversaw 35 national parks and monuments, but had neither the funding nor the manpower to properly manage the land or its resources. This deficiency led to widespread disagreements; just three years earlier, constuction of the dam at the reservoir in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley prompted preservationists and conservationists to publicly air their grievances and appeal to politicians. Much like the president himself, Wilson’s Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane, was very progressive; he invited one of the most vocal Hetch Hetchy dam opponents, Stephen Mather, to visit Washington and assist him in dealing with the ‘national park situation’. When Wilson created the National park Service, Mather was appointed as the agency’s first director; he served with distinction for 12 years, and oversaw creation of Great Smoky and Shenandoah National Parks.
WORST: Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)
To be fair, Grant was terrible in all aspects of his leadership; he’s been relegated to the bottom five on more than a dozen lists ranking the best and worst presidents. So it comes as no surprise that his environmental contributions were spotty at best. In the same year he approved a measure that established Yellowstone National Park, Grant put his name on an ugly bit of legislation known as the 1872 Mining Act. This essentially set an unhealthy precedent for mining operations that, to some degree, has influenced the industry to the present day. But he does deserve some credit; out of more than a dozen major scandals that plagued his administration, none of them had a detrimental effect on the environment. The same cannot be said for…
WORST: Warren G. Harding (1921-23)
Pretty much the perennial favorite for ‘worst president ever’, Harding (who may or may not have gone by the nickname, ‘Warren G’) wasn’t a bad guy per se — but he certainly surrounded himself with criminals. One of them was Albert B. Fall, whom Harding appointed as Secretary of the Interior in 1921. At the time, three expansive oil fields in the Western U.S. were designated as property of the U.S. Navy; Teapot Dome in Wyoming, and Elk Hills and Buena Vista in California. When Harding signed an executive order establishing Fall as overseer of the fields, he decided to make a little extra money by leasing the oil deposits to private companies. When Fall’s colleagues in the Senate found out about his crime, the Secretary of the Interior was charged with bribery and sentenced to a year in prison (the first Cabinet member to serve time). And nearly a century later, Harding’s administration is linked with the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal — the country’s first major oil-related scandal (but certainly not the last).