February 20, 2023
Robert Dewey

Presidents' Day was originally established to celebrate President George Washington, but it is now recognized as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present. This year we’d like to highlight some of the U.S. Presidents from both parties that have been champions for conservation.

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Image of Ulysses S Grant
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Ulysses S. Grant (Republican; 1869-1877)
Theodore Roosevelt called President Grant the “father of the national parks” for signing into existence the first National Park in the U.S. In 1871 Congress allocated $40,000 (then a huge sum) to finance an expedition to an area called Yellowstone, a location that then was mainly known from traveler’s stories. Led by the U.S. Geological Survey, the expedition brought back information on this area, and in particular 3D “stereographic images” of the dramatic landscape. This led to Yellowstone being established as the first National Park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” to keep “natural curiosities, or wonders” protected and conserved “in their natural condition”.
Grant is also responsible for one of the first protected areas for marine mammals. In 1868 he designated the Pribilof Islands in Alaska as a reserve for the northern fur seal. These seals had been heavily over-hunted and populations were declining dramatically. Eventually, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, our next conservation champion, an international treaty was developed to control the over-hunting of these fur seals and also sea otters - the first international treaty to protect marine mammals (the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911).

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Theodore Roosevelt Portrait
Pach Brothers

Theodore Roosevelt (Republican; 1901-1909)

“Teddy” Roosevelt was well known as someone who loved the outdoors and being in nature. One of his key achievements was the designation of the first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island in Florida in 1903. He also signed the Antiquities Act in 1906 which allows Presidents to designate and protect natural and historic areas as “national monuments” (and subsequently designated 18 areas for protection). He also established 50 bird reserves and the U.S. Forest Service was created on his watch. In addition, he convened the first conference of State Governors at the White House in order to discuss conservation. He appointed a National Conservation Commission to inventory natural resources in the U.S. In total, Roosevelt helped to protect and conserve more than 230 million acres of land in the U.S., making him one of our major presidential champions of nature.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Elias Goldensky

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat; 1933-1945)
More famous for being a wartime president, “FDR” is less well known than his cousin “Teddy” for being a conservation president. However, he was a big nature lover and established 11 national monuments including the Joshua Tree National Monument. In addition, his New Deal program established the Civilian Conservation Corps. This program provided employment and training for millions of people, as well as important conservation infrastructure. The Corps constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide and planted more than three billion trees. This huge program of tree planting is credited with combating soil erosion on 84 million acres of farmland.

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Lyndon B. Johnson
White House Press Office

Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat; 1963-1969)
President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964, immediately conserving 9 million acres of American with the highest level of protection. Subsequently, an additional 100 million acres of wilderness have been granted protection under this Act. He passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act (the predecessor of the Endangered Species Act), the Land and Water Conservation Act and established the National Trails System. He also authorized a fund that allowed the purchase and addition of more land to national parks, refuges and forests.

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Richard Nixon Portrait
Executive Office of the President of the United States

Richard M. Nixon (Republican; 1969-1974)
Although President Nixon’s reputation has been overshadowed by scandal, he likely did the most for wildlife and environmental conservation. Although not personally interested in conservation and nature, he realized that the general public was, and gave free rein to innovative conservationists and environmentalists to help write ground-breaking environmental laws. Under Nixon’s tenure, the Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and, most importantly, the Endangered Species Act were written and passed. Nixon also established both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Marine Mammal Commission. The Clean Water Act was passed during his administration although Nixon vetoed it, with Congress stepping in to overrule his veto. The Nixon Administration also signed the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species and implemented the treaty’s controls on trading endangered wildlife through the Endangered Species Act. The laws passed during the Nixon Administration probably did more to help protect wildlife internationally than any other President.

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Former President Jimmy Carter
Library of Congress

Jimmy Carter (Democrat; 1977-1981)
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter designated 15 new national monuments in Alaska, swiftly followed by signing the Endangered American Wilderness Act.  In addition, in 1980 he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act protecting 104 million acres of land and creating two national conservation areas, two national monuments, nine national wildlife refuges, 10 national parks and preserves, and 25 wild and scenic rivers. Post presidency, he also continued to be an active advocate and champion for the protection of wilderness areas, particularly in Alaska.

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Former President Bill Clinton
Bob McNeely, The White House

Bill Clinton (Democrat; 1992-2000)
President Clinton continued President Carter’s legacy of establishing national monuments, expanding or adding 20 national monuments including the Giant Sequoia National Monument, protecting  nearly 27 million acres of public lands.  He also signed into law the landmark National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act that unified and better protected the only national system of lands and waters dedicated to wildlife conservation. Clinton also appointed strong environmental advocates to lead key departments and agencies, including Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the end of his administration, he also passed the “Roadless Rule,” which protected one-third of national forests from the construction of roads, logging and development. For a history of the Roadless Rule, visit our blog.

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Former President Barack Obama
US Coast Guard

Barack Obama (Democrat; 2009-2017)
President Obama is a champion of conservation – he established 22 national monuments, such as Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, and expanded several others. In total his actions added protections to 265 million acres of land and water. One major undertaking was the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument into one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.
He also took steps to tackle one of the greatest threats to wildlife: climate change. For example, he signed the U.S. onto the Paris Climate Agreement in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also canceled many oil-drilling leases on public lands and blocked new drilling in much of the Arctic Ocean.

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President Joe Biden
Adam Schultz

What Will President Biden’s Environmental Legacy Look Like?

Much of President Biden’s presidency has been spent trying to rectify the damage and roll back the environmentally-damaging activities of the Trump Administration. However, tackling climate change has been a major focus of the Biden Administration, and climate change is one of the biggest threats to U.S. wildlife and wild places.

President Biden has set a new national goal to reduce greenhouse emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued regulations to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a major greenhouse gas. The recent Inflation Reduction Act contained a number of clean and renewable energy incentives, including promoting the sequestration of carbon dioxide.  The Biden Administration has also set into effect plans to have 100% clean electricity standards by 2035 and to have all new passenger vehicles sold after that date producing zero emissions.

One initiative of the Biden Administration is to promote nature-based solutions. This is when the protection, management and restoration of natural systems (such as trees and forests, wetlands and grasslands) helps to address societal problems such as drought, flooding, coastal defenses, wildfires and clean water. By protecting and managing important ecosystems and wild places, they in turn can help protect and provide essential services for human communities – a win-win for humans and nature.

It should be clearly apparent from this list that not only has the U.S. had a long history of Presidents championing wildlife and nature conservation, but it has long been an important and bipartisan issue for all political parties, and all branches of the Government.

It should be noted that in this article, we only discuss the conservation efforts of past presidents. Some on this list are infamous for a variety of reasons including corruption, scandal, racism or the treatment of marginalized communities and Native Americans. We understand that the privilege of access to nature is not universal, as recent events have repeatedly illuminated. We are committed to active anti-racist practices at Defenders of Wildlife and doing what we can to ensure a safe and healthy future for all of us.

Author(s)

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Robert Dewey headshot

Robert Dewey

Vice President for Government Relations
Robert Dewey oversees the implementation of Defenders’ national legislative and administrative priorities through legislative and grassroots advocacy, coalition participation and national environmental community coordination.
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