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Reagan, the Environmentalist

His administration was greener than you think.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
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“He understood how public lands impacted the individual soul and spirit,” says Rob Sisson, the president of ConservAmerica, previously known as Republicans for Environmental Protection. “He would never lock up enough land to satisfy the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club. But he certainly believed in it.”

At the same time, he liberalized hunting and fishing on federal land and opened previously protected land​—​especially areas with no particular inherent beauty​—​to mineral exploration.

By no means was Reagan’s environmental record spotless. Indeed, among the biggest blemishes on that record are leases that sold natural resources on public land at hard-to-justify bargain basement prices. He also vetoed Clean Water Act enhancements that, when later implemented over his veto, resulted in enormous pollution reductions in streams and rivers.

His environmental appointees were also hit and miss, particularly the earlier ones. EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch mismanaged the agency. Interior secretary James Watt (who did help push for the CBRS) turned out to be a political liability and ended up having to resign after noting in public that a coal-leasing panel was made up of “a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.”

On those few matters where environmentalists do sometimes give Reagan credit, they often learn the wrong lessons. The Montreal Protocol wasn’t successful because it was an international agreement negotiated partly under United Nations auspices. It was successful because it relied on technology, gradualism, and smart policies, rather than heavy-handed regulation, to deal with a problem. And while cap and trade was a near-perfect system for fighting acid rain​—​a problem that resulted from fewer than 100 easy-to-identify industrial facilities​—​experience in the European Union has proven that it’s unworkably complex as a means of dealing with vastly more prevalent sources of carbon.

But taken as a whole, Reagan’s environmental legacy includes millions of acres of protected land and significant cuts in pollution. In part because of his ideology, he compiled a generally admirable environmental record that offers important lessons for those who seek to protect the environment while containing the size and scope of government.

Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.

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