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Regulating America’s Natural Environment

Summary and Keywords

From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Keywords: environment, water-resource management, forest management, conservation, national parks, Progressive Era reform, sanitation, New Deal conservation, Environmental Protection Agency, climate change

Americans and the Environment from the Colonial Period to the American Civil War

When English colonists first arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they were not particularly concerned about preserving or protecting the environment. Their mission was to conquer a forbidding landscape full of tangled brush, dense forest, and dangerous beasts. Many early colonists in Jamestown and the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote at length about the dangerous natural enemies thwarting their ambitions. Puritan poet and colonist Michael Wigglesworth described New England before the European arrival as “a waste and howling wilderness/ Where none inhabited/ But hellish fiends, and brutish men/ That Devils worshipped.”1 From the 17th century into the 19th century, regulating the environment largely meant bringing order to a world perceived to be in chaos: turning lush forest into geometrically defined parcels of farmland, exterminating wolves that howled threateningly from the village periphery, and taming the powerful waterways that coursed like veins through this New World.

The colonists’ conquest ethos was heavily informed by capitalist notions of private property. Europeans’ perceptions of territorial management stood in stark contrast to the communal land-ownership practices of Native Americans who had inhabited North America for thousands of years. To be sure, American Indians had radically reshaped their environment prior to European contact, but English settlers’ earnest attempts to commodify nature radically accelerated the pace of environmental transformation on the North American continent.2

Land had been scarce in Europe, and for many colonists, land ownership in the New World represented a strategic way out of the rigid social hierarchy of the Old World. It was a powerful incentive that propelled many people to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to a mysterious new land. Chartered companies, hoping to accrue more laborers in their colonial settlements, offered generous land grants to settlers. Thus, Europeans arriving in the New World came to view themselves as landowners: people with the right and privilege to hold dominion over bounded territory.

Yet, even if European colonists valued private property in America, they also became accustomed to colonial regulations related to the natural environment. In the case of mineral rights, for example, European imperial powers placed restrictions on colonial title to gold or silver found on property deeded to individual proprietors. So too did colonial legislatures limit deer hunting in certain seasons and fishing practices in particular areas to ensure adequate stocks of desired game and aquatic life. From the very beginning, then, American settlers became accustomed to government regulation of natural resources, even if they did believe that they had primary say over what to do with game, water, and soil found on their private property.3

Sons and daughters of European pioneers, members of America’s founding generation, were ardent believers in the sanctity of private property. John Adams expressed his thoughts on the matter in a letter written in May of 1776, just weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will have the balance of power, and in that case the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multitude, in all acts of government.”4 The founders etched this principle into the United States Constitution in the 1780s. Reflecting the views of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that America’s greatness depended on its ability to nurture an agrarian republic ruled by landowning farmers, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution stated clearly that “no person” shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”5 This has proven to be one of the most important legal measures in United States history in shaping future environmental management in the country. It codified a way of relating to the natural world that promoted division of land into individually managed parcels that could only be taken by the government under circumscribed conditions. The Fifth Amendment’s due-process clause, more than perhaps any other specific statute or federal code since passed, has proved a powerful check against government efforts to curb property owners’ actions that degrade the natural environment. This is in large part because the Constitution also gives property owners expansive powers to bring suit against the federal government in order to forestall regulatory actions affecting privately owned land.6

But just as the Constitution restricted federal authority to preserve and protect American ecosystems, so too did it enshrine governance mechanisms that gave Washington bureaucrats broad powers to regulate the use of the country’s natural resources. The so-called commerce clause of article 1 was and still is one of the more important federal-empowerment provisions. Stating that Congress has the authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes,” this clause has been invoked to promote everything from laws that regulate pollutants dumped in interstate waterways as well as agricultural chemicals that might end up in food sold across state lines.7 The Constitution also gave the federal government other authorities—the power to tax, the power to wage war, the power to negotiate international treaties—all of which have been used in one way or another to shape the contours of the American environment.8

Americans’ efforts to commodify nature in the 18th century extended from the biosphere to the hydrosphere. In New England, early battles among mill owners, farmers, and fishermen precipitated the creation of new laws that privileged industrial uses of water over others’ claims to river resources. Small milldams constructed on Massachusetts’ Charles River and other streams often caused flooding and disrupted fish migrations, creating tensions among various constituencies dependent upon aquatic resources. In 1796, the Massachusetts General Court intervened to resolve this conflict, passing a mill act that ultimately limited mill owners’ liability when it came to paying for damage done to neighbors’ property. This law served as model legislation for other states in the 19th century and had a profound effect on water-resource management in the United States. Put simply, the Massachusetts law made it easier for industrial firms to consolidate control over valuable river resources. It codified the principle that the law should encourage economic growth, even if that growth created nuisances born by other private-property holders.9

As the new republic matured over the course of the next several decades, conquering the frontier remained a primary federal imperative. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville explained this drive, saying, “Americans . . . are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight: . . . [a] march across these wilds—drying swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing Nature.”10 Beginning with the Land Ordinance of 1785 and continuing with monumental legislation, such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1906, the U.S. government promoted swift transfer of public property to private landholders through generous land grants, and the scale and pace of this exchange were truly astounding.11 Through aggressive land acquisitions, such as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Mexican Cession of 1848, the United States government gained title to millions of acres of new territory in the 19th century, and at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, Congress vigorously debated the best way to dispense of this enormous bounty in a way that would promote yeoman democracy. In the Land Ordinance of 1795, the government proposed to sell land in 640-acre allotments for $2 an acre, an arrangement that precluded many small farmers from making purchases. Thus, subsequent land acts passed in 1800 and 1820 sought to reduce the size of minimum acreage allotments—first to 320 acres and then to 80 acres—to make purchases more affordable for small farmers. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, the government granted farming families the right to gain title to 160-acre plots so long as they lived and worked on that land for five years. None of these laws, however, successfully prevented speculative investors from acquiring tremendous tracts of public land. In the end, Jefferson’s agrarian ideal was hard to enact. Due to loopholes in laws and lax acreage-limitation enforcement, powerful corporate interests became lords of the land in the American West.12

Railroad companies, especially the nation’s first transcontinentals, benefited tremendously from government giveaways. During the Civil War, the federal government became increasingly involved in subsidizing the expansion of rail networks, with legislators believing that this would help to create national markets for commodities extracted from hinterland regions of the American West. Federal involvement in promoting the expansion of transportation networks dated back to the early 19th century, when Kentucky congressman Henry Clay and others endorsed the financing of “internal improvements”—canals, roadways, and waterway infrastructure. But in the 1860s, in part driven by the expansive natural-resource demands of the Civil War, legislators dreamed of a vastly bigger scale of federally supported infrastructure development. In 1862, Congress passed a railroad act that ultimately granted the Union Pacific, the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, land grants equivalent to the states of New Hampshire and New Jersey. In addition, the Union Pacific received millions of dollars in federal subsidies to finance expansion into areas of the arid West where there was not yet enough commercial traffic to generate revenue sufficient to cover construction costs.13

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Figure 1. Ceremony commemorating the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

These railroads, along with state-sponsored canals, such as the Erie Canal, allowed Americans to extract prodigious quantities of resources from the natural environment on a scale like never before. Farmers, enticed westward by railroad companies, began to plow up the fragile grasslands of the Great Plains, turning them into “amber waves of grain”; in the Great Lakes region, timber companies clogged up waterways, felling trees destined for commercial markets now connected by new rail and canal arteries; and farther west, prospectors journeyed out to dig up ore in California, Nevada, and Colorado. Here too, federal policy proved important. Under the Mineral Resources Act of 1866, Congress declared that the “mineral lands of the public domain, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared free and open to exploration and occupation by all citizens of the United States.”14 This groundbreaking federal mining law—and its successor, the General Mining Law of 1872—spurred an explosion of investment in the decades to come that literally moved mountains. And the story was much the same with forests. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 enabled lumbermen to gain access to trees on public land for a nominal fee.15 The American West was open for business.

None of this would have been possible had the United States government not actively removed Native American communities from desired territories. Congress passed legislation, such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which opened up lands for settlement once claimed by powerful tribes.16 As settlers poured into the West, the U.S. military forcibly removed Native Americans from lands once granted to them under treaty, often engaging in violent conflicts, such as the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, that left hundreds of men, women, and children dead. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 divided up Indian property once held collectively by tribal communities and opened up new territories to white settlement that had once been designated Native American land. This law resulted in tribal communities losing over 60 percent of their land fifty years after passage.17

In the early 19th century, critics did come forth to challenge radical transformations of the nation’s environment. In the 1820s, some northern and southern farmers expressed concerns about the degradation of American soil, promoting agricultural “improvement” practices that that they believed would better conserve rich nutrients found in America’s fields.18 Beyond the country’s farmland, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist writers living in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1830s and 1840s, published philosophical writings that exalted the natural world. In Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” and Thoreau’s 1854 Walden, both philosophers spoke of natural landscapes removed from dense population centers as rejuvenating spaces in which Americans could find true enlightenment.19 Just a few decades later, diplomat, polymath, and politician George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864), which paid homage to soil-conservationist calls for reform in the 1820s and went further to explain humanity’s profound capacity to degrade the natural world. His work went on to inspire a generation of conservationists.20

Nevertheless, the poignancy of such prose never fully drowned out the capitalist clawing of American entrepreneurs and businesses that drove ravenous consumption of America’s natural resources during the 19th century. The ideas of Thoreau, Emerson, and Marsh lay latent until the emergence of the late-19th-century conservation movement.

The Birth of the American Conservation Movement

In the years after the American Civil War, new voices called for government regulations designed to protect natural amenities threatened by the rapid economic development of the Gilded Age. John Muir was one such powerful advocate calling for change. A Scottish immigrant, Muir came to Wisconsin in 1849 with his family at the age of eleven and took part in the pioneering work of settling America’s Midwest. Nearly blinded following an accident in a factory, Muir decided to trek over 1,000 miles by himself through the American South. His goal was to make it to South America via a steamer departing from Florida, but he became ill and ultimately changed his route, heading out to the port city of San Francisco in 1868.21 From there, he trekked over 130 miles inland by foot to Yosemite Valley, which was then a park managed by the state of California under the Yosemite Grant Act of 1864. In Yosemite, Muir became enraptured with the natural beauty of such wonders as Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and the other curiosities. Moved by what he saw, he dedicated the rest of his life to promoting the preservation of America’s wild spaces.

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Figure 2. John Muir with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite Valley, 1906. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-ppmsca-36413).

John Muir was a prime proponent of one of the most significant environmental interventions in United States history: the creation of the world’s first national parks. As the establishment of a state-managed park in Yosemite Valley made clear, political clamoring for government preservation of beautiful natural wonders could be heard even before the Civil War came to an end, but it was not until the cessation of military conflict that the federal government devoted concerted energies toward bigger conservation projects.

Support for the creation of America’s first national park came from many corners. There were environmentalists, like John Muir, who argued for such measures on the grounds that it would result in the preservation of some of the nation’s most majestic natural wonders. But there were other motivations as well. Some Reconstruction-era politicians in Washington, DC, saw national parks as unifying symbols capable of binding together a nation recently torn asunder by four long years of war and bloodshed. And there were economic interests to consider as well. For railroad companies, such as the Northern Pacific transcontinental line, national parks seemed an attractive amenity that might draw tourists out West.22

Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, was created in 1872. It appealed to many different groups of people. Situated in the northwest corner of Wyoming, just a few miles away from the branch line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Yellowstone National Park was a land of curiosities located atop a caldera of bubbling magma that produced spectacular geysers and otherworldly geologic features. The Northern Pacific published polished promotional pieces that cast Yellowstone as a magical world similar to the one Lewis Carroll created in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.23 The railroad did this in large part because it was having a hard time generating revenue as its lines extended into underpopulated territories. The story was similar in California and the American Southwest, where railroads supported legislation to protect Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.24 In short, railroads were tireless advocates and lobbyists for national parks because they had a financial interest in their development.

Because of the volatility of Yellowstone, it was not a space suitable for agricultural development or other industrial purposes, so preservation would not undermine foreseeable economic development there. The enacting legislation made clear a democratizing theme. This was to be a place designed “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” a message that remains enshrined on the entryway into the park.25 For a nation seeking healing, this was a place of reunion.

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Figure 3. Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Jim Peaco, National Park Service.

The creation of Yellowstone National Park set a powerful precedent. By the end of the 19th century, Congress created three other national parks—Sequoia (1890), Yosemite (1890), and Mount Rainer (1899)—all of which were managed by the Department of the Interior. John Muir remained a tireless lobbyist in these crusades, but so too did businessmen and politicians who saw in the creation of these spaces of preservation economic and political advantages.

But if national parks brought people together, they also tore people apart. In the debates over national parks, factions emerged promoting competing visions for the future of environmental regulation in the United States. On one side, there were preservationists, such as Muir, who believed that the federal government had an obligation to prevent certain wild and beautiful tracts of land from being developed. Muir, supported by the Berkeley-based Sierra Club (an environmental organization he helped found in 1892), made Thoreau-like arguments that nature had value beyond the economic utility it brought industry and farmers. Nature was valuable because in its wildest forms it offered people opportunities for transcendence and portals to spiritual worlds beyond our own.

Counterbalancing Muir were men such as Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the United States Forest Service, who had a very different view of the government’s role in managing natural resources. Pinchot had been educated at Yale University in the 1880s by German-trained foresters and constituted himself a conservationist, someone who believed that the government had an obligation to manage the natural world not out of respect for the wonderment of the wild but as a means of ensuring future generations of Americans adequate access to critical natural stockpiles essential to economic vitality. Like many Progressive Era reformers who followed him, Pinchot believed that experts trained in the art of scientific management should be given broad authority to decide how to marshal the nation’s ecological treasures.

Gifford Pinchot’s way of looking at the world had already become reified in the federal bureaucracy by the time he became forestry chief in 1905. Forty years earlier, in 1862, Congress created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a federal agency tasked with offering financial subsidies, educational infrastructure, and technological assistance to American farmers. The creation of the USDA marked a remarkable expansion of government power to shape the agroecology of the United States. It signaled the beginning of a new era of knowledge creation, where ideas generated in centralized bureaucracies in Washington, DC, slowly gained precedence over the local, time-tested practices of small, independent farmers in the fields.26

The very fact that the U.S. Forest Service was housed within the USDA said much about how Pinchot and the fellow conservationists in his agency looked at the world. Trees were to be treated like crops, just as other USDA officials might manage cotton or tobacco.

As both federal and state government agencies became more involved in regulating forests and fields, Native Americans and poor people who once hunted and fished in America’s wildlands soon became criminals in the eyes of public-land managers. Officials in the Department of the Interior (created in 1849) began to establish rules about what people could and could not do in protected areas. So too did state assemblies pass laws prohibiting certain activities in state parks. Acts that once had been legal, such as hunting wild game along the Yellowstone River or cutting timber in New York’s Adirondack Park, became criminal acts by the 1900s. People who did these things could now be fined or imprisoned for their actions. In short, in many parts of the country, conservation contributed to the closure of the commons, which adversely affected marginalized people who still subsisted on the land.27

But despite resistance from some communities, during the Progressive Era, Americans began to accept new government interventions in their lives. The battle between conservationists and preservationists continued into the 20th century, both sides arguing for regulations that reflected their sensibilities about humanity’s place in the natural world. For conservationists, government agencies were critical to ensuring the United States future economic prosperity. Preservationists believed that government regulation should ensure that nature is not destroyed in part because society cannot fully comprehend its full value. In the years ahead, these two philosophical ideas shaped the nature of American environmental regulation.

Progressive Era Environmental Regulation

During the first two decades of the 20th century, the federal government became much more involved in regulating the use of America’s natural resources. President Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, a successor agency to the USDA’s Division of Forestry (created in 1881) that was tasked with protecting America’s forestland.28 Roosevelt also supported the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902, which set out to regulate the country’s waterways. In 1905, Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey within the USDA and tasked it with more effectively managing the nation’s wildlife. (This agency became part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940.) By the 1910s, the Biological Survey initiated expansive assaults on predatory animals that resulted in rapid declines in populations of wolves, coyotes, and other animals that once roamed freely in the American West.29 Beyond forests and streams, the federal government also sent officials into the country’s urban cores. There, federal regulators, empowered by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, began monitoring the big commercial food producers and the meatpacking industry. Never before had Americans experienced such centralized state management of their environment.

Municipal governments also became deeply committed to environmental regulation during the Progressive Era. Urban centers, such as Chicago and New York, experienced tremendous population growth by the early 1900s. This was in part due to waves of immigration during the Gilded Age that brought thousands of workers across the Atlantic to the United States. But it was also due to the migration of black Americans and displaced farmers who abandoned the backbreaking labor and discrimination that characterized the American South’s sharecropping system. As cities struggled to deal with this demographic shift, municipal officials began implementing new programs and laws to curb mounting pollution associated with overcrowded living conditions.

Major interventions made by municipalities at this time included the development of extensive public waterworks, the initiation of “City Beautiful” campaigns, and the funding of new waste-management programs. In the first half of the 19th century, many cities in the United States did not have elaborate public waterworks, with many citizens relying on polluted wells and cisterns contaminated with human waste. Only about 20 percent of American municipalities had publicly managed water systems in 1830, with most cities relying on private companies with limited capital that were only capable of building rudimentary hydrological infrastructure. This all changed during the Progressive Era. By 1924, over 70 percent of American cities utilized public waterworks, and capital outlays were remarkable.30 New York City, for example, built an elaborate network of tunnels and pipes that brought fresh clean water from the Catskill Mountains to citizens living in Manhattan. This system, constructed between 1905 and 1914, cost the city approximately $220 million.31

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Figure 4. Construction of the Catskill Aqueduct in 1911. Today, this infrastructure still channels drinking water over 160 miles from the Catskill Mountains to New York City. Internet Archive Book Images, Creative Commons License, CC0.

During the Progressive Era, citizens called for city commissions to help construct new city parks that provided healthy environments where families could recreate. Part of a larger City Beautiful movement that swept the nation in the early 20th century, officials directed municipal investments toward preservation of natural beauty in urban areas. Such investments, however, did not benefit all communities equally. While wealthy whites in segregated cities reaped the benefit of municipal landscaping, black and minority communities in urban areas often remained far distant from city-beautifying campaigns.

Progressive municipal governments made major investments in sewer infrastructure and garbage disposal. In 1870, fewer than half of American cities had public sewer systems, but fifty years later, over 80 percent of U.S. municipalities boasted such infrastructure.32 City officials also got serious about cleaning up solid waste cluttering downtown commercial and residential areas. In some urban centers, the garbage problem had actually been exacerbated by government regulations that had prohibited pigs from ranging freely in public spaces. For decades, swine had functioned as urban garbage disposals, scouring the streets for waste items, but when late-19th-century anti-nuisance laws corralled these often rambunctious creatures into private corridors, citizens in cities such as New York had to turn to other waste-disposal alternatives.33 As refuse piles grew larger, sanitation experts secured financing that helped establish new garbage-collection and -disposal systems. In 1895, Colonel George Waring led the charge in New York City, setting an example for waste management that other cities soon followed.

Sanitation officials like Colonel Waring found support from the U.S. Public Health Service, which had been reorganized as an independent federal agency in 1912 and tasked with examining the relationship between the environment and public health.34 In 1914, the agency established the first federal regulation specifying water-purity standards for drinking water, though restrictions on federal authority limited this regulation to water transported over state lines (mainly via railcars).35

The U.S. Public Health Service was just one of several federal agencies given expansive powers during the Progressive Era that would go on to play a large role in shaping U.S. environmental policy. Other major government entities established at this time included the National Park Service, inaugurated in 1916. This agency replaced the U.S. military as the main enforcer of national park regulations. In 1910, Progressive reformers also pushed for the creation of the Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior, which monitored the well-being of miners working some of the nation’s dirtiest jobs. American citizens were beginning to accept the fact that public health could only be secured with the help of federal watchdogs.36

Big Government Conservation in the Great Depression

As the nation entered the Great Depression in 1929, many federal agencies created in the Progressive Era received an influx of federal funding as New Deal Democrats sought to halt rising unemployment by creating thousands of federal jobs through conservation initiatives. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a staunch advocate of conservationist policies first promoted by his distant cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, whom FDR deeply admired.

One agency that worked nonstop during the New Deal was the Bureau of Reclamation. Established with the support of a cabal of western politicians interested in irrigating the arid lands of the parched West, the Bureau of Reclamation built some of the world’s largest dams during the Great Depression. Since the 1820s, the Army Corps of Engineers had worked to improve navigable rivers, build levees, and develop seacoast harbors essential to American commerce, but in the 1930s the Bureau of Reclamation engaged in big-dollar damming projects that made the corps’ previous water work seem marginal at best. One of the largest initiatives the bureau undertook was the construction of the Hoover Dam. Initiated in 1931 and completed in 1935, the project cost roughly $49 million and employed over 21,000 people.37 Successful completion of this audacious project inspired bureaucrats in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to engage in big earth-moving projects. This New Deal agency, created in 1933, constructed numerous dams in the American southeast that powered military installations during World War II.

Despite federal investments in irrigation, the Bureau of Reclamation was not able to prevent one of the worst environmental disasters in world history: the Dust Bowl. For over a decade, farmers living on the Great Plains endured years of drought that finally ended in 1941, and during that time they saw their land blown away by powerful dust storms. Through legislation, such as the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, and the Resettlement Act of 1935, the federal government initiated programs designed to protect the fragile prairie grasslands. Regulating when and how farmers used their land, each of these laws promoted conservation practices that continued to be used in the Great Plains years after the dust had settled. The Taylor Grazing Act sparked fiery debates about local versus federal management of public lands that echoed through the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s when western ranchers, miners, and logging interests challenged the federal government’s authority to enforce land-use restrictions on public lands in the American West. (One key Sagebrush target was the Bureau of Land Management, which was created in 1946 to oversee public-land management.) Thus, New Deal legislation left unresolved tensions between ranchers and federal regulators. Furthermore, laws passed during the Dust Bowl did not forestall rapid expansion of monocrop cultivation in the arid West. Instead, farmers found temporary salvation in deep-well irrigation, tapping into the Ogallala aquifer, which today is strained by the growing demands farmers place on it.38

One organization that participated in soil conservation on the Great Plains was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Established during FDR’s First New Deal, this agency employed over 3 million poor, young men who were sent into America’s forests and fields to engage in conservation initiatives between 1933 and 1942.39 In addition to working in Dust Bowl fields, CCC participants built bridges, cabins, and trails in the country’s backcountry. Many of the young men who participated in the program were exposed to the wild for the first time. As such, the CCC helped to democratize the American environmental movement, indoctrinating a new generation of working-class men into the principles of conservation.40

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Figure 5. Civilian Conservation Corps participants working on an experimental farm in Maryland, 1933. National Archives and Records Administration, 195831.

As New Deal projects radically reshaped the American landscape, criticism developed among some reformers who believed that the federal government’s massive projects were actually marring the American landscape. Former U.S. Forest Service agent and University of Wisconsin professor Aldo Leopold became one of the leading opponents to infrastructure projects that cut through some of the country’s most pristine wilderness tracts. Leopold, along with other activists, stressed the need for roadless wilderness: outdoor spaces devoid of CCC bridges, paved overlooks, and log cabins. With this agenda in mind, he helped to start the Wilderness Society in 1935, and thirty years after its creation, this organization helped to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964, empowering the federal government to set aside land where no roads or permanent structures can be built.41

By the time the Great Depression ended, new environmental organizations, municipal sanitation agencies, and federal-government bureaucracies were radically remaking the American environment and establishing new rules about how land could and should be used. In the decades that followed, U.S. mobilization for World War II and the Cold War wrought profound transformations to the American landscape, once again inspiring calls to action from a new cohort of environmentalists.

The Long-Lasting Effects of War Give Rise to the Modern Environmental Movement

During World War II, the federal government carefully managed the extraction and distribution of the nation’s natural resources in order to ensure that GIs overseas had the metal, fuels, foodstuffs, and chemicals to be victorious in battle. One of the most important wartime agencies was the War Production Board (WPB), which controlled commodity flows through rationing programs and bulk government purchases of military equipment. The WPB preached civilian conservation of vital military necessities, such as gasoline and rubber, and agency propaganda encouraged recycling and reuse of certain materials. The WPB secured massive corporate contracts with industrial firms, such as Ford and Chrysler, which retooled their factories to produce the tanks and airplanes needed for war. The agency also helped to negotiate purchases with American chemical companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont, which produced pesticides, most notably DDT, that were designed to kill disease-bearing insects overseas.

These wartime interventions by the federal government had long-lasting effects on the American economy and environment. Ford and Chrysler, financially buoyed by federal contracts in the 1940s, roared into the 1950s, churning out more automobiles than ever before. Those cars helped many Americans move into federally subsidized suburban neighborhoods cleared by another military technology: the bulldozer. Monsanto and DuPont, flush with DDT and other chemicals used in fighting overseas, recrafted wartime propaganda pitches to sell gallons and gallons of pesticides and other substances to civilian buyers.42 By the 1950s, most Americans were living in the “Chemical Age,” in which pesticide fogging of suburban neighborhoods was a frequent occurrence.

Cold War defense initiatives also accelerated economic and ecological transformations in the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, motivated in part by the belief that interstate roadways enhanced military preparedness, helped automobiles become the primary means of civilian transportation in the United States for decades to come. The pulse of the Pentagon could also be felt in other domestic policy changes, especially with regard to energy production. Following the Soviet Union’s first successful test of a nuclear bomb in 1949, the United States government ramped up investment in atomic technology. During the Cold War, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a civilian-run agency formed in 1946, approved the instillation of dozens of nuclear reactors throughout the country, some of which became sites of major radiological releases in the latter decades of the 20th century.

All these changes sparked backlash among environmentalists who worried about how disruptions of ecosystems might affect human health. One leading critic was Rachel L. Carson, a longtime marine biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service and author of the best-selling book Silent Spring.43 Published in 1962, Carson’s book raised alarm about toxic chemicals, especially DDT, which contributed to bird-population crashes as well as other adverse ecological issues. Carson proved a dedicated champion of an ecological philosophy that stressed humans’ intimate embeddedness in the natural world.

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Figure 6. Portrait of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson during her tenure at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1940s. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Creative Commons License, CC BY 2.0.

Following the publication of Carson’s book, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson made strides to increase federal regulatory power concerning the environment. Prior to 1960, federal laws regarding water- and air-pollution prevention largely tasked state governments with monitoring and executing cleanup programs. The Water Pollution Control Act of 1945, and an amended version of the law passed in 1956, did little more than promise federal support for research on water-pollution issues. The story was much the same with air pollution, with early laws passed in 1956 and 1959 merely authorizing the use of small amounts of federal funds to conduct research on air-quality issues. This all changed in the 1960s when both President Kennedy and President Johnson pushed for stronger national pollution-control regulations. The Water Quality Act of 1965 was one such measure that vastly increased federal power. It established strong national standards for water quality that state governments had to meet in order to receive federal funding for water infrastructure projects. The law also created the Federal Water Quality Administration, the first national agency specifically tasked with looking into water-pollution problems.44

The Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Air Quality Act of 1967 both similarly expanded federal power. The 1963 measure appropriated federal funds for use in starting up state-managed air-pollution programs, while the 1967 law created the National Air Pollution Control Administration within the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) department, which was given expanded powers to force big polluters to curb toxic emissions. In 1965, the Johnson Administration also signed into law the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, thereby establishing the first national emissions standards for automobiles.45

During the 1960s, a chorus of voices pushed the federal government to deal with the nation’s environmental problems. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich lectured tirelessly on the environmental effects of overpopulation, penning his widely read Population Bomb in 1968.46 Washington University professor and activist Barry Commoner spoke out loudly about the dangers of atomic-warhead experiments and began formulating new concepts of ecological sustainability that became part of his popular 1971 book The Closing Circle.47 In the suburbs of bustling metropolises, such as New York and Los Angeles, a new generation of ecologically minded citizens began to mobilize to confront pollution problems in their backyard.48 Added to these new environmental groups were older organizations and stalwart activists, members of Muir’s Sierra Club and Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness Society, which had grown in size and influence in recent decades. All of these people, experts and laymen, worked to shape policy changes in the Cold War era.

From 1965 to 1969, a series of dramatic events helped fuel calls for more robust environmental regulations. The Bureau of Reclamation’s attempt to dam the Colorado River within Grand Canyon National Park in 1965 enraged members of the Sierra Club, who mobilized an incredibly successful ad campaign featuring pamphlets that inquired, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”49 This campaign built on Sierra Club organizing roughly a decade earlier that led to the successful termination of a Bureau of Reclamation damming project in Dinosaur National Monument’s Echo Park. In order to achieve this objective, however, Sierra Club director David Brower had to agree not to block the Bureau’s efforts to build Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. When this structure was built, it devastated Brower, and he vowed to be more aggressive in the 1965 Grand Canyon campaign.50 In the end, he and his organization were successful, and a dam was never built in Arizona’s most majestic national park.

Beyond dams, there were other water wars taking place at this time. In 1969, a deep-water oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara sprung a leak that turned the bleach-white sand of the nearby surf town black. Activists were enraged and called for moratorium on this form of extreme fossil-fuel extraction. That same year, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire, revealing just how many toxic chemicals had been released, unregulated, into the city’s waterway. Just a few months earlier in December of 1968, astronauts on Apollo 8 fired back the first panoramic images of Earth, allowing Americans a first glance at the blue-and-green orb on which they lived. All these events helped mobilize millions of Americans toward environmental activism, culminating in the largest mass demonstration in world history on Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

Republican President Richard Nixon, in part recognizing the expediency of co-opting a popular environmental movement into his political platform, continued the legacy of his predecessors, signing into law some of the most expansive pieces of environmental legislation the nation had yet seen. This included the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. This law sought to unify the activities of various federal agencies tasked with managing U.S. lands and waterways by defining an overarching federal environmental policy that all public officials had to adhere to when designing federal projects. It required public agencies to file an environmental impact statement (EIS) before executing a government project that might affect the environment. EIS statements were open to public scrutiny, and if provisions of a proposed plan proved problematic in the eyes of other federal agencies or a particular citizens group, legal action could be taken to prevent that initiative from going forward. In addition, NEPA established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a body tasked with advising the president on environmental matters.

After signing NEPA, Nixon made other bold strides to protect the environment, including creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive order in July of 1970. With Nixon’s signing of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 (which Congress made law over Nixon’s veto), the EPA gained broad authority to pursue legal action against public and private entities that did not abide by federal water- and air-pollution standards. The EPA also had expanded authority to protect wildlife through the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which authorized the creation of protected habitat for rare and unique American fauna.

As environmental groups continued to clamor for change following Nixon’s ouster in 1974, other key pieces of environmental legislation made their way through Congress. One significant measure was the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976. This law required factories and plants to monitor and report releases of chemicals known to be harmful to humans and provided enforcement mechanisms for ensuring that industries that violated certain standards came into compliance with the law. Following the Love Canal incident of the late 1970s in which mothers in western New York State appealed for federal relocation funds after discovering toxic chemicals buried beneath their homes, a Democratic Congress enhanced EPA powers to regulate toxic substances by passing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The measure, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, came to be known as the Superfund Act because it required specific polluting firms to pay fees into a federal fund that could be used to pay for cleanup at toxic-waste sites where liability was difficult to establish. Previously, EPA had authority to deal with toxic wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976, but CERCLA offered EPA enhanced powers to hold companies liable for expensive remediation programs.

Regulating America’s Natural Environment

Figure 7. Love Canal protestor who helped push the Carter Administration to approve the Superfund Act of 1980. Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

Thus, from 1960 to 1980, both Democratic and Republican administrations helped to nationalize environmental regulation in the United States. Once the domain of state and municipal agencies, pollution control now came under the purview of the EPA and new federal bureaucrats who enjoyed broad powers granted through robust environmental laws.51 In the decades ahead, however, conservative proponents of neoliberal economic policies sought to curb the authority of these new federal environmental administrators, believing that America’s economic prosperity depended upon government getting out of the way of big business.

From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump: The New Right Rebellion and the Neoliberal Challenge to America’s Regulatory State

During Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, he told reporters that he did not think that environmental activists would be “happy until the White House looks like a bird’s nest.”52 This reflected his disdain for environmental activism and the regulations such activism bred in the 1970s. At times Reagan proved pragmatic, signing the Montreal Protocol in 1988, which banned the use of chemicals contributing to ozone depletion. But throughout his eight years in office, he largely sought to curb federal enforcement of environmental laws and often spoke adamantly about pollution regulations as hindrances to economic growth. One symbolic act involved the removal of solar panels from the White House in 1986. These had been installed by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who, in response to the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, signed into law the National Energy Act of 1978 as well as the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977, which established the Department of Energy in the Executive Branch. Reagan saw no need for such a federal agency and showed similar disdain for groundbreaking environmental legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, a law he unsuccessfully lobbied against reauthorizing in 1987.53

Reagan’s antiregulatory policies were felt most heavily in his choice of appointments to the EPA and the Department of Interior. For EPA administrator, Reagan chose Anne Gorsuch (later Burford), a conservative Colorado lawyer and mother of current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who slashed the EPA’s budget by over 20 percent and radically reduced the number of cases against polluting firms found in violation of environmental regulations.54 At the Department of the Interior, Reagan’s appointment, James Watt, also proved a loyal disciple of Reagan’s deregulatory agenda. During his years in the interior, Watt vastly increased the amount of federally protected land leased to big coal companies.55

Reagan’s rebellion against the regulatory surge of the 1970s did not find favor with all Americans. In fact, in large part because of Reagan’s aggressive policies, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations witnessed huge increases in membership during the 1980s.56 Reagan recognized the backlash and replaced Gorsuch with William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s well-respected first administrator, in May of 1983. This was after Gorsuch had been cited for contempt of Congress (the first time this had happened to a cabinet official in American history) because Gorsuch had refused to deliver documents to Congress detailing the EPA’s implementation of toxic-waste–cleanup programs.57 Reagan also signed into law the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) and the Safe Water Act of 1986, both of which expanded EPA authority to regulate polluting businesses.58 The modern environmental movement was not dead.

Even Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, proved more moderate in his stance toward environmental regulation. In 1990, he signed amendments to the Clean Air Act that created a cap-and-trade system for dealing with sulfur compounds emitted into the atmosphere that contributed to acid rain. These amendments radically reduced dangerous air pollution at many of the nation’s big coal-powered plants.59 He also signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the first international treaty addressing climate change in world history. Though the UNFCCC did not feature any greenhouse-gas emission limits or any enforcement mechanisms to motivate reductions, it nevertheless represented the first step toward dealing with one of the world’s biggest environmental problems.

Throughout the 1990s, it increasingly became clear that American environmental policy could no longer be confined to issues happening inside U.S. borders. The issue of climate change forced U.S. leaders to think internationally about pollution problems. President Bill Clinton, supported by his vice president and longtime proponent of environmental regulation, Al Gore, worked to show the international community that the United States was committed to collective action regarding climate change. Clinton agreed to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which was the first binding international agreement on climate change that set out clear national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, a Republican-led Senate refused to ratify the agreement, with most legislators arguing that the treaty would adversely affect America’s economic position vis-à-vis China, a country that did not agree to the protocol.60

If the Clinton Administration showed a willingness to work with the international community on climate change, it also supported neoliberal trade policies that promoted long-distance commodity transport, a trend that contributed to growing global greenhouse-gas emissions. A centrist New Democrat, Bill Clinton supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), both of which limited nations’ ability to impose environmental regulations that might hinder international trade.61

In the early 2000s, economic and international crises forestalled further progress on climate change. Following the dotcom bust of 2001, the country dipped into a recession that was exacerbated by financial panic in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack. Reagan disciples, who believed that what ailed the country were restrictive and burdensome government laws, found favor within George W. Bush’s White House, which helped to construct a deregulatory agenda supported by big business. Oil and gas enterprises were major beneficiaries of Bush Administration policies that opened up new lands and waterways to coal, gas, and oil exploration. During these years, the federal government approved new extreme forms of fossil-fuel extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing, and placed few restrictions on firms within the oil and gas industry.62

As the outcome of the 2008 election became clear, many people believed that a major shift in environmental policy was on the horizon. During his campaign, Democrat Barack Obama signaled his interest in making America an international leader in the fight to combat climate change, and his policy platform included commitments to preserving and protecting America’s natural resources. But Obama’s promises did not materialize overnight as the collapse of the subprime housing market generated economic chaos that kept the White House preoccupied. In part due to concerns about the economy, the Obama Administration did not pass tough regulations targeting dirty forms of extreme fossil-fuel extraction in his first few years in office. In fact, he pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, and during his presidency, gas extracted from hydraulic shale fracturing surpassed domestic oil production by conventional means, leading many critics to charge that the president was not doing enough to get the country off fossil fuels.63 But as the nation slowly recovered from the Great Recession, the Obama Administration adopted more aggressive environmental policies, especially on climate change. In 2013, the Obama Administration approved new stiff regulations for emissions coming from coal-powered plants, part of what was dubbed the president’s Clean Power Plan. This regulatory plan was implemented via executive order, in large part because the Obama Administration did not enjoy support for such environmental reforms in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.64 Perhaps his biggest achievement was the signing of the 2015 Paris Accord, an international climate-change agreement that included both U.S. and Chinese commitments to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the coming years. Again, Obama had to act via executive order, refusing to send this accord to a hostile Senate that would have rejected treaty ratification.65 Obama was bypassing Congress in order to implement federal environmental policy.

The inauguration of Donald J. Trump in 2016 quickly imperiled Obama’s executive actions. Heavily supported by far-right activists who strongly supported a return to deregulatory policies, Trump made clear that he would undue many of the environmental initiatives executed by his predecessor. Like Ronald Reagan, he appointed officials to high posts that were antagonistic to federal ecological management. His EPA administrator, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, trumpeted his reputation as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and during his first few months in office worked to roll back Obama-era regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan.66 Much as James Watt had done during the Reagan years, Trump’s secretary of interior, Montanan Ryan Zinke, tried to make oil and coal exploration on public lands easier for extracting industries.67 All this, critics charged, pushed the nation further and further away from a clean-energy future that might slow the pace of climate change, something President Trump believed was an “expensive hoax” propagated by “the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”68 In 2017, the president announced his intention to pull the nation out of the Paris Accord that Obama had approved just two years earlier.69 It seemed that Reagan-era neoliberal policies were once again ascendant, though climate-change demonstrations and rallies across the country suggested that the legacies of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson remained alive and well in America.

Discussion of the Literature

The best comprehensive histories of environmental regulation come from public-policy experts and political scientists.70 Environmental historians have largely focused on key moments when environmental regulations expanded dramatically, namely during the Progressive Era conservation movement, New Deal, and modern environmental movement.71 Several scholars have written case studies that reveal the intricacies of Superfund Act enforcement in various regions across the country.72 Surprisingly, no environmental historian has taken on the task of chronicling the history of the EPA from its founding into the 21st century.

Useful historical accounts of 1970s-era environmental regulations come from officials who actually worked within the EPA. William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, spoke at length about his time at the agency in an oral interview conducted by EPA officials in 1993. This and other interviews can be found in the EPA’s online archive. The Guardian published two particularly illuminating articles on the history of the agency in 1992 and 1993, both of which can also be found at the EPA archive website.73

Lynton K. Caldwell, a political scientist who helped conceive of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and coined the phrase “environmental policy” in 1963, penned an article entitled “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy” that reveals much about the emergence of environmental legislation in the 1960s.74 His writings are an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the development of federal environmental policy after publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

To understand how and why environmental regulations emerged when they did, scholars should consult the broad literature on the evolution of environmental thought in the United States. Roderick Nash’s Wilderness in the American Mind is a touchstone text that traces Americans perceptions of the natural environment from the colonial period through the 1960s, but there are other works that focus on specific periods in U.S. history. Recent work in environmental history offer particularly rich analyses of forces shaping New Deal Era and post–World War II environmental policy initiatives.75

Primary Sources

Many federal, state, and municipal agencies are involved in regulating the environment, making it difficult to offer here a succinct list of particularly rich repositories. The first place for researchers to start is the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where the records of various federal agencies in charge of environmental management are housed. Of particular interest is Record Group 412 containing files related to the history of the Environmental Protection Agency. Other key files preserved at the National Archives include the records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior (RG 412), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (RG 75), the U.S. Forest Service (95), Bureau of Reclamation (RG 115), the National Park Service (79), and the U.S. Bureau of Mines (70).

For Progressive Era research, municipal archives often preserve rich resources. The New York Public Library’s Archives and Manuscripts department, for example, houses files pertaining to extensive public-works projects completed in the early 20th century. Other city and regional archives are the best place to look for primary documents related to city-level and state-level environmental reforms implemented during the Progressive Era.

Scholars interested in the New Deal can consult archival repositories for specific federal agencies. The National Archives at Atlanta, for example, contains records for the Tennessee Valley Authority (RG 142), an agency that radically redesigned waterways in the American South. The National Archives in Maryland preserves the records of the Civilian Conservation Corps (RG 35), while the Chicago branch of the archives houses the Soil Conservation Service’s records.

Researchers interested in the history of toxic-waste management will find the EPA’s Enforcement History and Compliance Online (ECHO) Database a useful digital resource for monitoring businesses’ past compliance with various environmental laws, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA).76 The EPA also manages a website that monitors remediation ongoing at various Superfund sites around the country. To research a particular toxic-waste site, visit the agency’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) Public Access Database online. In addition, files related to Superfund cleanup are often kept on file at local libraries near national priority listing (NPL) sites.77

Further Reading

Andrews, Richard N. L. Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves (2nd ed.). New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

    Caldwell, Lynton K. “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?” Public Administration Review 22 (1963): 132–139.Find this resource:

      Caldwell, Lynton K. “Implementing NEPA: A Non-Technical Political Task.” In Environmental Policy and NEPA: Past, Present, and Future. Edited by E. Ray Clark and Larry W. Canter, 25–50. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997.Find this resource:

        Fairfax, Sally K., and Edmund P. Russell. Guide to U.S. Environmental Policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2014.Find this resource:

          Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920. New York: Atheneum, 1959.Find this resource:

            Isenberg, Andrew C., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

              Kamieniecki, Sheldon, and Michael E. Kraft, eds. The Oxford Handbook of U.S. Environmental Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                Klyza, Christopher McGrory, and David J. Sousa. American Environmental Policy: Beyond Gridlock. London: The MIT Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                  Melosi, Martin. The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                    Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind (5th ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                      Sellers, Christopher. Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                        Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                          Turner, James Morton, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics Since 1964. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.Find this resource:


                            (1.) Quoted in Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 5th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 36.

                            (2.) On northern colonists’ capitalist conceptions of land ownership, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983). Many Puritan settlers in New England were concerned about moral degradation that attended rapacious accumulation of private property. But as historian Ted Steinberg noted, the construction of stone fencing in colonial New England clearly represented an understanding of humankind’s relationship to the natural world that was odds with Native American land-use practices. See Ted Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 25. On the ways Puritans adapted communalistic ideals to a capitalist economy in New England, see Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995). For southern colonists and Native American land practices in the American South, see Timothy Silver, A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

                            (3.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy, 2nd ed. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006), 49–50.

                            (4.) Quoted in Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 36; See also James L. Huston, Securing the Fruits of Labor: The American Concept of Wealth Distribution, 1765–1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 21.

                            (5.) U.S. Const. amend. 5.

                            (6.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 70.

                            (7.) U.S. Const. art. 1. sec. 8. cl. 3.

                            (8.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 59–70.

                            (9.) Ted Steinberg, Nature Incorporated, 23, 29–32; and Morton J. Horowitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780–1860 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 34–53.

                            (10.) Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, trans. Henry Reeve, vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904), 559; and Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 23.

                            (11.) Legal historian James Willard Hurst argued that American law in the 19th century was largely geared toward promoting the “release of energy.” By that he meant that American policymakers created laws that mobilized “the resources of the community to help shape an environment which would give men more liberty by increasing the practical range of choices open to them and minimizing the limiting force of circumstances.” See James Willard Hurst, Law and the Conditions of Freedom in Nineteenth-Century United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956), 6.

                            (12.) John Opie, The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 35, 37, 65–69.

                            (13.) Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinental and the Making of Modern America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 24.

                            (14.) 14 Stat. 251, An Act Granting Right of Way to Ditch and Canal Owners over Public Land, July 26, 1866; and Kent A. Curtis, Gambling on Ore: The Nature of Metal Mining in the United States (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2013), 70.

                            (15.) Andrew C. Isenberg, Mining California: An Ecological History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 14, 81.

                            (16.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 92–93.

                            (17.) Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty: An American History, vol. 2, from 1865 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017), 625.

                            (18.) Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 25.

                            (19.) Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854); and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1836).

                            (20.) Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth, 178–184.

                            (21.) For an analysis of John Muir’s journal of his 1866–1867 trek, see John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, ed. William Frederic Badè (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916).

                            (22.) Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 146–147. See also Alfred Runte, Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of the National Parks, 5th ed. (New York: Roberts Rinehart, 2011).

                            (23.) Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth, 146–147.

                            (24.) Alfred Runte, Trains of Discovery, 1, 41.

                            (26.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 95–97.

                            (27.) Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 2–4.

                            (28.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 96.

                            (29.) Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth, 145–146.

                            (30.) Martin Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 123, 120.

                            (31.) United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, General Statistics of Cities: 1915: Including Statistics of Governmental Organizations, Police Departments, Liquor Traffic, and Municipally Owned Water Supply Systems, in Cities Having a Population of Over 30,000 (Washington, DC: USGPO, 1916), 41.

                            (32.) Martin Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 123, 120.

                            (33.) Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth, 157, 160–161, 166, 168–169.

                            (34.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 118, 131.

                            (35.) Joel A. Tarr and Patrick Gurian, “The First Federal Drinking Water Quality Standards and Their Evolution: A History from 1914 to 1974,” in Improving Regulation: Cases in Environment, Health, and Safety, eds. Paul S. Fischbeck and R. Scott Farrow (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2001), 46, 52.

                            (36.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 131.

                            (37.) “Building a Nation,” Time, March 30, 2017.

                            (38.) For a comprehensive history of this natural disaster and the government programs it inspired, see Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); for a detailed discussion of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, see Karen Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 135–168.

                            (39.) Neil M. Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.

                            (40.) Maher, Nature’s New Deal, 10–11.

                            (41.) For a thorough discussion of Aldo Leopold and the wilderness movement in the interwar years, see Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

                            (42.) For an excellent history of American chemical companies’ transition from war service to civilian markets, see Edmund P. Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

                            (43.) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

                            (44.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 203–206.

                            (45.) Andrews, Managing the Environment, 208–209.

                            (46.) Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968). For an account of Ehrlich’s jousting with economist Julian Simon, see Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and our Gamble Over Earth’s Future (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

                            (47.) Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York: Random House, 1971).

                            (48.) For suburban environmentalism, see Christopher Sellers, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

                            (50.) For a detailed history of this Echo Park battle, see Mark W. T. Harvey, Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).

                            (51.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 252–254.

                            (52.) Reagan Makes Counterattack in E.P.A. Fight,” New York Times, March 12, 1983.

                            (53.) Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, ed. Douglas Brinkley (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 56;Clean Water Bill Passed By House Over Reagan Veto,” New York Times, February 4, 1987.

                            (54.) Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth, 254; “Anne Gorsuch Buford, 62, Dies; Reagan EPA Director,” Washington Post, July 22, 2004, B06.

                            (55.) Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth, 254.

                            (56.) Steinberg, Down to Earth, 254.

                            (57.) “House Charges Head of E.P.A. With Contempt,” New York Times, December 17, 1982, A1.

                            (58.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 261–262.

                            (59.) Andrews, Managing the Environment, 271.

                            (60.) Andrews, Managing the Environment, 357.

                            (61.) For a detailed discussion of the relationship between trade and climate policy during the Clinton years, see Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 64–95.

                            (62.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves, 351, 360, 362–364.

                            (63.) U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Hydraulically Fractured Wells Provide Two-Thirds of U.S. Natural Gas Production,” EIA report published May 5, 2016;America’s Biggest Oil Boom Came Under Obama,” CNN Money, July 21, 2016; “President Obama Describes an All-of-the-Above Strategy for Energy,” President Barack Obama website archive, February 23, 2012.

                            (64.) “Court Rejects a Bid to Block Coal Plant Regulations,” New York Times, January 21, 2016, A13.

                            (67.) “As Interior Secretary Swaggers through Parks, His Staff Rolls Back Regulations,” New York Times, July 25, 2017, A11.

                            (68.) “Does Donald Trump Still Think Climate Change is a Hoax? No One Can Say?,” New York Times, June 3, 2017, A1; “Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax: Beijing Says Its Anything But,” New York Times, November 18, 2016, A16.

                            (69.) “Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement,” New York Times, June 2, 2017, A1.

                            (70.) Environmental historian Edmund P. Russell and environmental scientist Sally K. Fairfax collaborated to produce Guide to U.S. Environmental Policy (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2014). However, most of the premier survey works on environmental regulatory policy come from political scientists and public-policy scholars. The premier text on this topic is Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves; see also Sheldon Kamieniecki and Michael E. Kraft, eds., The Oxford Handbook of U.S. Environmental Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). On environmental policy since 1990, see Christopher McGrory Klyza and David J. Sousa, American Environmental Policy: Beyond Gridlock (London: The MIT Press, 2013).

                            (71.) For the classic study on Progressive Era conservation, see Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920 (New York: Atheneum, 1959). For the New Deal and interwar period, see Neil M. Maher’s Nature’s New Deal and Paul Sutter’s Driven Wild. For the roots of postwar environmentalism in postwar suburban America and the regulations that movement inspired, see Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Samuel P. Hays and Barbara D. Hay’s Beauty Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Christopher Sellers, Crabgrass Crucible. For books on federal policy regarding toxic chemicals, see Thomas Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981); and David Kinkela, DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). For a sweeping discussion of how debates about wilderness preservation shaped American politics after Silent Spring, see James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics Since 1964 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012). On policies regarding endangered species, see Peter S. Alagona, After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013).

                            (72.) See Katherine G. Aiken, Idaho’s Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885–1981 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005); Elizabeth Blum, Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008); David Brooks, Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015); and Stephen Lerner, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Chemical Exposure in the United States (London: MIT Press, 2010).

                            (74.) Lynton K. Caldwell, “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?” Public Administration Review 22 (1963): 132–139. See also Lynton K. Caldwell, “Implementing NEPA: A Non-Technical Political Task,” in Environmental Policy and NEPA: Past, Present, and Future, eds. E. Ray Clark and Larry W. Canter (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997), 25–50.

                            (75.) Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). Again, for the New Deal and interwar period, see Neil M. Maher’s Nature’s New Deal and Paul Sutter’s Driven Wild. For the Cold War period, see Adam Rome’s Bulldozer in the Countryside; and Samuel P. Hays and Barbara D. Hays’s Beauty, Health, and Permanence.

                            (76.) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Enforcement History and Compliance Online (ECHO) Database.

                            (77.) CERCLIS Public Access Database.