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Until the 1980's, Republicans could claim with considerable justification that their party's environmental record was no less distinguished than that of the Democrats.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest Republican presidents, launched conservation as a national political movement. Roosevelt set aside the first national monuments and wildlife refuges. In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which has enabled Mr. Clinton to protect wild lands as national monuments.
Herbert Hoover was a dedicated conservationist. And we should not forget that Dwight Eisenhower set aside lands on the North Slope of Alaska, The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protecting one of the last great caribou herds on earth.
Perhaps the most surprising Republican environmental legacy is that left by Richard Nixon. Nixon's personal commitment to conservation was not especially strong, and his policies may have been more politically motivated.
The Clean Air (1963) and Clean Water (1974) Acts, the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), even the Endangered Species Act ('66, '69, '73) were signed by Nixon with strong bipartisan support. And we owe the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency to Nixon's genuine enthusiasm for government reorganization.
for most of the 20th century, conservation enjoyed the support of both parties. Although they often approached the issue in different ways and with different emphases, Democrats and Republicans agreed that conserving natural resources, reducing pollution and preserving wild lands were clearly in the national interest.
The great sea change in Republican policies toward the environment did not come until the election of Ronald Reagan. By 1980, conservatives in the party had begun their attack on big government as way to reduce the scope of federal power.
Although opposition to environmental protection seemed to make good sense as part of the conservative assault on government regulations, this stance has been a political loser for the Republican party. Few features of Republican politics have provoked more backlash, or lost more potential votes, than the party's anti-environmental stance. James Watt and Anne Burford were disasters for the first Reagan administration. And Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" came to grief in good measure because most Americans continue to believe that protecting the environment is a good thing.
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