Ronald Reagan in the United States
Reagan, Ronald in Environmental Law
President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, Ronald Reagan appointed many people to environmental positions who were unsympathetic to the environmental movement. His agenda was clear: he wanted to cut down the amount of regulation impacting businesses and lessen federal involvement.
In the history of the environmental movement, Reagan’s efforts are known as the Counterrevolution. Although he was successful in slowing the regulatory flow, he did not stop the steady movement of environmental legislation. The public demonstrated through congressional elections that they considered environmental issues important. The environmental movement gained momentum during the Reagan presidency, and many attributed its growth to vigorous opposition to his policies.
During his first term, his appointees included James Watt as secretary of the Interior, Anne Gorsuch (later, Burford) [see Burford, Anne Gorsuch] as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Robert Burford as head of the Bureau of Land Management, and John Crowell as assistant agriculture secretary, in charge of national forests. The appointees began systematic attacks on the agencies they headed, announcing programs that appeared directly opposed to the agencies’ mandates.
James Watt, who treated his new position as a religious mission to get public lands into the hands of the private sector, announced that the outer continental shelf was ripe for development. He opened it for bidding, drilling, and exploration. He also intended to sell approximately thirty million acres of public land but was stopped by the real estate developers who worried about the effect of such sales on the market. Close to a religious fanatic, Watt expressed no concern for conserving resources. Instead, he believed it was his God-given right to exhaust them. He compared environmentalists to Bolsheviks and Nazis and implied that the environmental movement was anti-American. During his tenure, he added no land to the National Park Service reserves, even though such purchases were budgeted. Watt resigned from his position in 1983 after angering the public with numerous inflammatory statements.
Anne Gorsuch Burford, who had close ties with the regulated community, became embroiled in a scandal involving the use of the Superfund for hazardous waste cleanups. Under her leadership, environmental enforcement came to a standstill, and rumors circulated of special deals cut behind closed doors. Soon, Burford and Rita Lavelle, another political appointee at the EPA, were the subject of a congressional inquiry into use of the fund. Later, Rita Lavelle was convicted of perjury, and Anne Burford was accused of obstruction of justice. She resigned in 1983, complaining bitterly about being a scapegoat.
Robert Burford, a rancher before he was hired by the Department of Interior, had benefitted from the use of public land for grazing. As head of the Bureau of Land Management, he favored privatization. He set fees for grazing far below the market rate, which encouraged overgrazing and angered ranchers who did not have access to public land. The man in charge of national forests in Reagan’s Department of Agriculture, John Crowell, was the former general counsel and vice president of the company that was the biggest purchaser of public timber.
While the appointees were wreaking havoc on the agencies they represented, Reagan’s main weapon operated within the Office of Management and Budget. David Stockman, head of that office, recommended slashing budgets for critical agencies. So at the end of Reagan’s first term, the EPA’s budget (adjusted for inflation) was the same as it had been ten years before.
In 1981, the first year of his presidency, Reagan had issued Executive Order 12291, which required a cost benefit analysis for all proposed regulations. The order effectively transferred regulatory oversight to the Office of Management and Budget. Regulations were held up while they were scrutinized for economic impact analysis. Environmental and safety regulations were killed, sent back to the agency, or simply disappeared into the void. The staff of the Council on Environmental Quality was cut from 60 to 16. At the Department of Interior, money was available to develop roads, bridges, and buildings but not for preservation and acquisition of land. In the area of energy, money flowed to coal, oil, and nuclear producers; money for development of renewable energy sources virtually dried up.
Congress did not give up, however. The Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Recovery Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act were all strengthened during the Reagan presidency. The first of the reenactments, the Clean Water Act amendments, was passed over presidential veto. The message that environmental concerns were not a passing whim gradually became clear.
The primary effect of Reagan’s incumbency was public mobilization. Large environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council grew phenomenally in membership during Reagan’s first term. In the 1984 elections, candidates often found their environmental stances under scrutiny. When it was over, no one doubted the importance of the environment to Americans.
Based on “Environment and the Law. A Dictionary”.