We walked together along a wooded path on the eastern shore of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park talking about how to conserve our country’s unsurpassed natural resources. George H. W. Bush, then vice president, told me he intended to run for president and he wanted to be remembered as a leader for the environment.
Now some three decades later, it seems appropriate to assess his legacy. I am proud to observe that he was one of our greatest environmental presidents.
When Bush was elected, the U. S. was losing over a half million acres of critical wetlands each year. He boldly promised to end that decline with the ambitious goal of “no overall net loss.” Forging coalitions between federal and state agencies and private stakeholders, he created eight new bay and estuary programs, launched Coastal America, a public-private program to protect and restore coastal ecosystems, signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and started a National Wetland Research Center.
Wetlands conservation funding for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was increased by 220%. In a combined effort with the EPA, Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and others, over 4.8 million acres of wetlands were restored, enhanced or protected. These remarkable achievements resulted in the president’s living up to his pledge of “no net loss of wetlands.”
Teamwork was a core strategy of Bush’s leadership on wildlife issues as well. His administration launched cooperative and innovative initiatives with states, ranchers, farmers, developers and conservationists to protect endangered species, migratory birds, fisheries and wildlife habitat. After decades of gridlock, his administration worked with western legislators, state agencies, sportsmen and agricultural interests to forge a successful compromise to introduce wolves into the Yellowstone region. His Department of Interior initiated the “Pride in America” campaign to enlist citizens to help care for our public lands, and “Partners in Flight” to protect nongame migratory birds.
Described as perhaps “the most effective environmental law ever passed,” Bush’s Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 innovated a unique emissions trading system, reducing sulfur dioxide by millions of tons. The act dramatically reduced acid rain and urban smog caused by ozone with stronger rules on tailpipes and refueling equipment. The law also sharply cut emissions of 189 toxic chemicals for the first time. Between 1990 and 2004, annual SO2, CO, smog emissions and toxic air pollutants decreased dramatically across our country. The Bush trading system later became a model for how to address the problem of climate change.
In response to the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Bush convened a Cabinet level task force, which fined Exxon $600 million and signed the 1990 Oil Spill Pollution Act, creating significant liabilities and establishing a double hull requirement for new oil tankers.
With a determination to clean up pollution in places like Boston Harbor and New York City waterways, he launched a $400 million program to assist cities with secondary sewage treatment. He also enacted a 100-year moratorium on offshore oil drilling in California, Washington, Oregon, the Georgia Banks, North Carolina and the Florida Everglades.
President Bush had a passion for wildlife. During his 4-year presidency, he launched an unprecedented expansion of our National Wildlife Refuge System. He created 54 new refuges – more than any other president including President Roosevelt – adding 940,000 acres to the existing refuge system.
His leadership also extended beyond American shores. With the passage of the African Elephant Conservation Act, the U.S. gave assistance to conserve African elephants and attack poaching. Our country led the effort to ban the international trade in ivory and initiated a global effort to control illegal wildlife trade. Using the Pelly Amendment, Japan was pressured to end trade in shell carvings and leather from sea turtles and there was an effort to regulate the harmful practices of oceanic drift net fishing.
George H.W. Bush enjoyed the outdoors, especially when it came to fishing. With a program called “Hooked on fishing – Not on Drugs,” his administration introduced inner city kids to the outdoors. The president was eager to fish with a group of Washington D.C. kids, but the White House insisted that his schedule would only allow for a 15-minute visit. Upon his arrival, he grabbed a rod and quickly became engrossed in laughing with and teaching the young anglers how to cast. Much to angst of his handlers, he stayed for 90 minutes.
After his presidency, I wrote to George H.W. Bush to thank him for his stewardship of our irreplaceable wild resources and for his impressive record. From Kennebunkport, in his usual humble manner, he responded: “I will save the ‘record’ for future reference…But some day, fair-minded people will take a look at the whole record on conservation and the environment, and I think we’ll come out pretty darn good.”