Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day Green

This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

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Given the hype, you might think Presidents Day was set aside for selling cars, socks, and iPods. Alas, no.

Originally celebrated as George Washington’s birthday on the 22nd of February, the third Monday in February has now been broadened to honor Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is February 12th, and – loosely - every US president.

Looking back, and in keeping with the “green” theme of this column, who were our most environmental presidents?

Teddy Roosevelt is maybe the best known environmentalist having famously encouraged citizens to develop a greater appreciation of and respect for nature. Along with the establishment of the US Forest Service in 1905, some of the highlights of TR’s tenure included the preservation of 150 million acres of old-growth timberland, the creation of 50 wildlife refuges, and the establishment of 5 national parks. Teddy Roosevelt, for the first time in this country’s history, brought the idea of environmental stewardship into the national spotlight.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, created as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, was responsible for planting over 3 billion trees across the United States as well as the construction of campgrounds, trails, and infrastructure in our national and state parks, many of which are still in use today. Under FDR’s administration, the Soil Conservation Service was established for the purpose of fostering long-term soil health and ending unsustainable farming practices that had led to widespread soil erosion leading up to the dust bowl days of the Great Depression.

Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and set aside 9 million acres wilderness land, but he was overshadowed by his wife – Lady Bird Johnson – who tirelessly advocated for the protection of natural resources and the beautification of America up until her death in 2007.

You may be surprised to know that Richard Nixon was one of our country’s most prolific environmental presidents signing into law the Clean Air Act and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, Nixon’s presidency gave us the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act among other pieces of environmental legislation.

But Jimmy Carter sits atop all others in his advocacy for environmental causes. Along with overseeing a laundry list of environmental protections, Carter created the Department of Energy with the expressed goal of establishing a national energy policy that promoted clean and alternative fuels.

In what would turn out to be a major part of Carter’s undoing, he urged citizens to drive slower, conserve more, and begin a dramatic and comprehensive conversion to alternative energies. As an example for the country, he installed solar panels on the White House while donning a sweater and turning the thermostat down to 68 degrees.

If we as a country had followed his lead, the United States today would be a very different – and much more sustainable – place to live.

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