Foxes in the henhouse: we’ve been here before (sort of)

The President’s Salmon is an environmental history of the Atlantic salmon and the Penobscot River in Maine. But it also tells a broader story of how American presidents, and their national policies on energy, trade, and the environment, have real impacts at the local level. Sometimes these effects outlast their presidents; other times, citizen action has helped put a stop to environmentally damaging politics, which is what happened under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Now seems like a good time to revisit this moment in history, as described in The President’s Salmon:

Those who propelled Reagan into office had great faith in “free” (unfettered and unregulated) enterprise. Surrounded by men who, blind to the injustices that enabled their entitlement, believed they were “self-made,” Reagan promoted economic survival of the fittest. His major supporters (including his “kitchen cabinet” of oil men, steel magnates, executives of car dealerships, drugstores, department stores, and their wives) had suffered through a decade of environmental regulations that cost them money and time, and they were tired of it.
Environmental policy should be more rational and attainable and less idealistic and pious. Love Canal was harmless. Toxic contaminants measured at trace levels were “imaginary and foreign,”
the risks exaggerated to satisfy previous administrations’ thirst for government intrusion into business affairs. Progress in improving environmental quality had been only “modest,” yet the resulting regulation stifled progress, strangled industry, deprived the public of the benefit of new chemicals, drugs, and pesticides, and cost too much money.
Reagan immediately cut the federal budget for everything but defense. He revoked almost all of Jimmy Carter’s executive orders relating to environmental and natural resources policies. And he named likeminded individuals to lead the agencies charged with protecting the nation’s environment, wildlife, and fish.
Anne Gorsuch of Colorado, who had no experience in environmental policy, would lead the
Environmental Protection Agency, which had responsibility for the implementation of nine major environmental statutes, including the Clean Water Act, which Reagan wanted to abolish. Three weeks after she took office, Gorsuch eliminated the enforcement office and reduced staff by 11%. She helped instill a policy of “planned neglect” of hazardous waste sites and slowed Superfund monies, and she supported shrinking federal subsidies for wastewater treatment and state-level enforcement and planning. The only responsibility the EPA undertook was to clear more chemicals for quick use.
James Watt would head the Department of the Interior and chair the Cabinet Council on Natural Resources. Watt had been working to dismantle environmental regulations in Colorado and throughout the West. He quickly fired, demoted, or transferred employees who did not share his fear of wilderness, a fear he soothed by quickly opening up wilderness areas to oil and gas leasing. Critical habitat for endangered species went undesignated. Reagan proposed to withhold from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies the annual revenue earmarked for salmon restoration.
John Crowell, vice president and general counsel for Louisiana Pacific, would be assistant secretary for natural resources and environment in the Department of Agriculture. The resulting rates of timber harvesting were among the highest in American history.
James Edwards, governor of South Carolina, home to eight nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons manufacturing, and W. Kenneth Davis, of Bechtel Corporation, the world’s largest nuclear power plant construction firm, would lead the Department of Energy after Reagan failed to eliminate the office as he had promised to do during his campaign.
Environmental policy might have seemed foolish to some, but by the 1980s it was popular with citizens and entrenched in Washington politics.
Fish, wildlife, clean air, and clean water had bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Like the residents of Salmon City, Americans had witnessed renewal of the air and waterways and a resurgence in fish and wildlife. Americans liked the EPA. Reagan’s efforts to cut budgets, reduce staff, favor business, ruin wilderness, and water down regulations were unacceptable…

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Reagan Cabinet, 1981. (Ronald Reagan Library)

American citizens have shown, over and over, that they care about the quality of their environment and their health. In part in response to presidential actions, the 1980s were a time of great strides in environmental protection. Few of Reagan’s appointees lasted. Edwards left in 1982, the Department of Energy still standing. Gorsuch and Watt both resigned in 1983 amid their own separate scandals, while the American movement toward clean air, clean water, and healthy wildlife swelled and strengthened. Citizen voices were heard, their protests loud enough to drive the foxes away.

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