Ronald Reagan – Environmentalist Governor

Reagan’s record in California included major environmental achievements.

It may surprise you to learn this — it certainly surprised me. But Ronald Reagan has been called “the most environmental governor in California history — protecting wild rivers from dams, preserving a Sierra wilderness by blocking highway builders, creating an air resources board that led to the nation’s first auto smog controls.” This may be an exaggeration, but there were some major environmental achievements. Consider this LA Times account of Reagan’s effort to save the John Muir trail:

“A high-speed, trans-Sierra highway between the John Muir and Minarets wilderness areas long had been the dream of Central Valley interests. . .

“Reagan galloped out of Red’s Meadow near Devil’s Postpile, 100 packhorses in tow. We overnighted in small tents at a High Sierra lake. The next morning, the governor rode to a meadow beneath the Minaret Summit, dismounted and announced that he had persuaded the Nixon administration not to build the highway’s planned initial leg.

“But to bury the road idea forever, Reagan proposed joining the two wilderness areas. Congress later agreed. And today, the John Muir Trail remains unbroken for 250 miles between Yosemite and south of Mt. Whitney.”

I love the image of Reagan riding in on horseback to save the wilderness. The same story recounts Reagan’s support for legislation to create the Lake Tahoe interstate compact in order to save the lake. And he also blocked dam proposals on the Eel River and on the Middle Fork of the Feather River.In addition, as Tony Rossman has reminded me, Reagan was instrumental in securing legal protection for California’s wild and scenic rivers.

Perhaps most notably, Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act. He also signed the signed the Mulford-Carrell Act, combining the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board to create the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Reagan appointed the first head of the Board, Arie Jan Haagen-Smit, a Cal Tech chemist who was responsible for linking smog to automobile emissions. By all account, this “stubborn Dutchman” was a dedicated and successful champion of pollution control.

Reagan as President was a much different figure. As we all know, his Administration was no friend to the environment. But even during his Presidency, there were some bright spots, such as his enthusiastic signing of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer.

In short, Reagan was a more complicated figure than the stereotyped right-winger that both ends of the political spectrum have portrayed. And in his California days, he had a legitimate claim to be considered an environmentalist.

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “Ronald Reagan – Environmentalist Governor”

  1. Prof. Farber, how can we go from the California Environmental Quality Act in 1970 to the out of control climate change records we are experiencing today in 2016 when even Ronald Reagan championed environmental quality?

    Bill McKibben warned us loud and clear with his “350 or Bust” campaign in 2008, and today in 2016 we are now rocketing beyond 400 ppm, and all they can do is say 450 ppm will be OK!

    As human beings, our greatest failure is to defeat the power of money, even as currently out of control consequences threaten our long-term quality of life beyond the point of no return, because intellectuals fail to overcome the continuous, mendacious propaganda produced by politicians who are controlled by that money.

    Why won’t academicians become role models and join together to practice what they preach to their students?

  2. Look, I’m already nostalgic for Richard Nixon. Now you’re going to make me nostalgic for Ronald Reagan.

    While i’m at it, I might as well note that he was much more intelligent than any of us gave him credit for.

    But I still think Carter won the debate hands down.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more