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Reagan the environmentalist

Once upon a time, Republicans could win statewide elections in California. In 2018, as the Republican Party becomes increasingly irrelevant in a state that once produced many of its most important leaders, it is worth reflecting on milestones set by California Republicans and their specific contributions to state governance and environmental policy. There is a pressing and indeed vital need to reexamine the past to find examples of productive environmental governance in California. Good environmental stewardship in California remains a goal of particular importance, especially in light of our recent fires. One approach offered by former governor Ronald Reagan was to rely on local civil society to craft solutions instead of relying on central governance (and the associated unwieldy bureaucratic dictates) alone.

The greatest achievement of Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial administration (1966-1974) was popularizing the notion that environmentalism is practiced best when the state gets out of the way of the people whenever possible, an idea which has its basis in conventional conservative philosophy. This notion was important because powerful business interests had historically forced the Republican party into ignoring environmental concerns when considering new logging, mining and drilling. The same thing happened with the Democrats when powerful managers of publicly funded projects lobbied to over-dam the rivers of the West into oblivion.  This mono-directional trend changed under Reagan. The only previous exception of similar magnitude was Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential administration. Roosevelt, who, like Reagan, commanded enough power to forge new directions in governing, made sure his conservationist leanings were front and center in deciding policies. Reagan did the same, especially when it came to hearing out the stakeholders engaged with the environmental challenges at hand.

Reagan gave concerned citizens both within the administration and in the public domain the opportunity to make their case as to why certainly environmentally unwise public projects should be stopped. He especially paid attention to those who would be most directly affected by any particular policy decision. This did not happen under the incumbent governorship of Democrat Pat Brown, who most likely would have carried forward many projects Reagan had wisely canceled. Reagan also opposed businesses when they overstepped their bounds on multiple occasions, not backing down during a fight with logging companies over the creation of Redwood National Park.

Apart from brick and mortar policy decisions, rhetorical expressions of environmentalism with a conservative approach was unique to the governor and his cabinet. Reagan’s administration weakened the norm that environmentalism should be practiced by government decree alone. For example, Reagan called on local stakeholders in the Lake Tahoe basin to create a forward thinking joint plan of action with the state of Nevada instead of relying on Sacramento bureaucrats to craft a plan. A belief that conservation can best be achieved when civil society crafts solutions with a bottom up approach fit well into traditional conservative ideology, and it is a belief that has served to guide later conservative conservationists as well. Reagan employed this approach to great effect when he rejected a proposal to construct a dam on the Eel River in Northern California, with the advice of a local rancher named Richard Wilson. He also blocked the construction of a highway across the Sierra Nevada mountain range due to the insistence of one of his cabinet members, Resources Secretary Norman Livermore, who had personally worked and trekked the Sierra for decades and understood its value more than nearly anyone else.

At Rancho del Cielo, Reagan’s ranch property in Santa Barbara, he practiced this citizen first environmentalism by being personally involved while governor and later president with much of the physical work around the property, such as the building of a fence made of telephone poles, and the continued clearing of overgrown brush. Although these individual actions may seem trivial compared to stopping excessive dams and preserving mountain ranges, such behavior modeled how Reagan believed we could best confront our environmental challenges. Namely, this approach prioritized the engaged involvement of local stakeholders who could better understand the issues they were intimately connected to than any distant bureaucrat. It would do us well to not forget this ideal in confronting the environmental issues we as Californians face today.


Contact Max Minshull at mminshull ‘at’

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