When Democrats and Republicans United to Repair the Earth

David Sarasohn, co-author of The Green Years, 1964-1976: When Democrats and Republicans United to Repair the Earth

Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee was the majority and minority leader of the US Senate, White House chief of staff, and a presidential contender. But what he really hoped to be remembered for, as he said at the end of his career, was his work on the Clean Air Act—not trying to destroy it, but establishing it.

Half a century ago, over the course of a dozen years, the United States adopted the environmental laws and procedures that we still follow today: more than 300 efforts, including the Clean Air Acts, the Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and dozens of national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, and protected seashores were implemented. These advances, unimaginable in today’s poisonous partisan gridlock, were propelled by Democrats and Republicans working together and typically drew overwhelming support.

The story of that time, covered in The Green Years, 1964–1976: When Democrats and Republicans United to Repair the Earth, carries some surprising revelations and some surprising people. Republicans were key in these efforts to a striking degree, reminding us that the 1960s and 1970s Republicans were as close to the outdoor activism of Teddy Roosevelt as to the drill-everywhere attitude of Donald Trump. Baker, a national Republican leader, spent a decade working closely on environmental legislation with Democratic presidential hopeful Edmund Muskie. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Pennsylvania Republican representative John Saylor was one of the most active and determined conservation advocates in the House.

Democratic legacies from the Green Years look different as well. Washington senator Henry Jackson and Idaho senator Frank Church are etched in history on their opposing sides of the Vietnam war: the high-profile hawk and the resolute dove. But throughout this period, the two were close allies on the Senate Interior Committee, repeatedly producing major legislation on pollution and preservation and protecting massive stretches of the country from development; enacting rules that still govern how we deal with the land, water, and air around us.

The historical reputations of the era’s looming high-profile presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, have not exactly been shaped by environmental issues. Yet both of their administrations left towering legacies on land and water, achievements unthought of before and unimaginable since.

Nobody remembers Lyndon Johnson for environmental achievements. Yet the original “Great Society” speech at the University of Michigan in 1964 had an entire section on the subject, and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall led the fight for a series of achievements, beginning with the long-sought Wilderness Act of 1964. At the end of his administration, battered and discredited by Vietnam and racial violence, Johnson was still urging Congress and signing measures to create and expand national parks and forests. When the Bureau of the Budget tried to resist spending for protecting more territory, Johnson’s aide Joseph Califano commented, “Budget’s trouble is that it consistently underestimates how much this man loves the land.”

The legislative achievements during the Nixon administration, under a president famous for walking the beach in wingtips, were even greater and include the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the EPA and environmental impact reports. Some were administration initiatives, some were enacted over administration resistance, but the achievements were driven by figures whose role is now forgotten. Nixon’s domestic counselor John Ehrlichman, today known only as a convicted Watergate conspirator, had been a land use lawyer in Seattle, and his environmental leanings colored White House policy. The Sierra Club’s David Brower later concluded that the movement would have done better to court Nixon rather than battle him. Long after being driven from office, Nixon told George H. W. Bush’s EPA director, “I founded EPA. I’m an environmentalist, too.”

Beyond the simple list of what was passed is how it was all passed. Legislation was hard-fought, extensively debated, and often took several Congresses to enact. But typically, the final measures passed both houses overwhelmingly and were supported by all parties: by segregationist Southern Democrats, hardline Midwestern conservatives, and urban liberals. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, which could not possibly get through Congress today, passed the Senate unanimously and the House 354-4.

Such harmony is hard to envision today, of course, because of the bitter attitudes pervading Washington. But there has also been a change in the makeup of Congress, which, in turn, results in both changed environmental policies and environmental landscapes. Everyone knows Lyndon Johnson’s accurate prediction that the civil rights struggle would cost the Democrats the South for decades, but environmental legislation also blasted the party in the inland West. The disappearance of those Democrats and the ones from the South, along with Republicans from the Northeast, widened the gap between the parties and removed figures vital to bipartisan environmental efforts.

But the advances of the Green Years were not just a matter of Congress, or of executive orders from the White House. The story of the Wilderness Act didn’t begin in the 88th Congress, or even in the previous sessions when it fell short. It goes back to Abraham Lincoln setting aside the Yosemite Valley, and to Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt beginning the protection of vast stretches of undeveloped land, and to decades of lobbying and organizing work by the Wilderness Society. The drive to protect animals and plants didn’t start with the Endangered Species Act, but goes back to colonial Massachusetts. The Green Years, 1964–1976 traces those roots. The book measures that mandating community input, thought to be a curb on protection, actually stimulated citizen activism. Congress ultimately, and eventually, reflects its constituencies. The rising pressures of global warming and mounting weather disasters and extinction events could yet make themselves felt in Congress. In politics, as on the calendar, a green season can come again.

David Sarasohn is a retired editor and columnist at the Oregonian and the author of The Party of Reform: Democrats in the Progressive Era