In this period of budget austerity and questionings by the Reagan administration about the appropriateness of conservation efforts it is instructive to look back for a moment to the first 20th-century Republican president. Theodore Roosevelt set aside in protected federal reserves some 125 million acres of forest land (three times the acreage saved by his three predecessors). And in 1908 he called the US Conference of Governors to Washington to discuss conservation. Within two years some 41 states had established conservation commissions.
From TR's time to the present most US administrations have given support to the concept of environmentalism, if only in the form of lip service. Opinion polls, moreover, have repeatedly indicated that a majority of Americans favor protecting the environment, whatever the economic costs. A current New York Times/CBS poll, for example, finds more than two out of three Americans believing that "we need to maintain present environmental laws in order to preserve the environment for future generations." Such support, the poll indicates, cuts across all age, income, education, racial, and political lines.
Has that deep public commitment yet been perceived by those within the Reagan administration who are urging a major revision of existing environmental rules? Consider what is happening at the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal regulatory body which oversees many of the nation's environmental laws. The new EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch, reportedly is seeking to cut her staff and budget by close to half over the next two fiscal years. Agency officials say such a reduction is logical since the EPA has too many managers as opposed to staff workers and, besides, environmental functions will be gradually turned over to the states.
Since Congress is still debating environmental measures, such as revision of the Clean Air Act, it is probably too early yet to comment on how many EPA officials should stay in their jobs. Nor is there any question but that many lawmakers believe that at least some modification of existing laws may be economically necessary. All the same, there is something not a little worrisome in the haste with which the administration may be moving to slash the EPA even before Congress has acted on revising existing laws.
The Republican Roosevelt administration is now generally looked upon as a success and its environmental policies as beneficial to the nation. If the new folks at the EPA have a good history book sitting around, they may want to turn to the period of the early 1900s and read how farseeing Americans back then really were.