“Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals,” Theodore Roosevelt presciently wrote in a popular magazine in 1913, as he watched the western frontier vanish four years after he’d left the White House. “But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”
Roosevelt, the hunter from New York whose name became synonymous with conservation, initiated our country’s long-overdue reconciliation with the environment. Because of him, we can still admire the ancient sequoias and redwoods and visit the Grand Canyon. Nearly every modern president who signs major environmental legislation follows his trailblazing footsteps, but few outshine him.
As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, NationSwell surveyed dozens of experts for their evaluation of how his environmental record measures up to those of former presidents. Of course, comparing presidents against each other over the last century is “tricky,” says Paul Sutter, who teaches modern U.S. history at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “For the first two thirds of the 20th century, conservation and then environmentalism were quite bipartisan, with Republicans often showing substantial leadership on environmental issues,” he notes. “The two Roosevelts, perhaps our most important environmental presidents during the first half of the century, embody that lesson (one a Republican, the other a Democrat).” Today, with the country split across a partisan divide, even environmental preservation and industrial regulation draw controversy.
Confronted with an unbudging Congress and a citizenry that is “remarkably hostile to science,” in Sutter’s words, Obama staked his legacy on strong Environmental Protection Agency regulations and international treaties. How do his accomplishments stack up to contemporary presidents, who each had their own circumstances to navigate? Since Rachel Carson first warned of “a strange blight … silencing the voices of spring in countless towns” back in 1962, who has done the most to purify America’s land and waters? From best to worst, here’s how historians rank our country’s recent leaders.