Scott Pruitt, the embattled director of the Environmental Protection Agency, is at war with what he calls the “regulatory state,” but to aging Republican environmentalists, Pruitt is a “disgrace” who wants to unravel President Richard Nixon’s proudest domestic achievement. The latest example of this is Pruitt’s April 2 announcement that he plans to revise the fuel-efficiency regulations for cars and light trucks put in place by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Notwithstanding the shame of Watergate, Nixon is known within the environmental community as one of the two most important presidents of the 20th century. His only peer is another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt secured his place in environmental history by vastly expanding federal protections for land and wildlife, while Nixon's legacy arises from anti-pollution measures that had a practical impact on homes and workplaces.
Notwithstanding the shame of Watergate, Nixon is known within the environmental community as one of the two most important presidents of the 20th century.
Certainly no other chief executive can match Nixon’s record for cleaning up the nation’s land, air and waters. In fact, in recent months, the EPA administrators and Interior Department officials who served in the Nixon-Ford administrations have taken on President Donald Trump’s appointees at EPA and the Interior Department for what they see as a shameful effort to restore American industry’s right to pollute. William Ruckelshaus, appointed the EPA’s founding director when Nixon created the agency by executive order in 1972, started the outcry with an op-ed piece condemning Pruitt in the Washington Post in November 2017.
Ruckelshaus’s allies — dubbed “the Nixon A team” by former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nathaniel P. Reed — are not mincing words. “Scott Pruitt is a national disgrace,” Reed, the elder statesman of Florida’s Everglades protection movement and a longtime leader of the state’s GOP establishment, told me in an email. “I deeply regret that the few Republican senators who have a record of caring about the full range of activities that EPA is deeply involved in ever voted for him. Frankly, they should be ashamed!”
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Nixon’s superior record as a friend of the Earth may have been largely forgotten by the general public and his own party, but it cannot be erased from history. As Amos Eno, former executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and a President Gerald Ford appointee at Interior, puts it, Nixon “constructed the infrastructure of national anti-pollution regulation.” He did this with a series of laws signed between 1969 and 1974 that cleaned up the nation’s air and water, and set up protections for endangered species and marine mammals.
Indeed, neither Nixon nor the Democratic Congresses that passed his Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act can be accused of inattention. Nathaniel Reed recalls the newly inaugurated Nixon calling him, Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton (his boss), Council on Environmental Quality head Russell E. Train and Ruckleshaus into a meeting to plot his environmental enforcement strategy. “I don’t give a darn about the environment” in comparison to other pressing issues, Nixon told the group, according to Reed. “But what I want from you, Morton, Train, and Ruckleshaus is a better environmental record than Jack Kennedy. But don’t get me into too much trouble.”