The Republican Who Brought Environmentalism to the White House

In early 1970, President Nixon directed a message to Congress, outlining his plans for executive orders and calling for legislation to curb pollution and conserve America’s natural splendor. “Like those in the last century who tilled a plot of land to exhaustion and then moved on to another, we in this century have too casually and too long abused our natural environment,” he began.

Later that year, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and supported the Clean Air Act. The president hadn’t campaigned on environmental issues — and his advisors attested that they weren’t a personal priority for him — but environmentalism had leapt in popularity for Americans in the late ’60s, when the disastrous externalities of the postwar boom were being thrust into public consciousness.

Although Nixon would eventually fall to the Watergate scandal — and tarnish any presidential legacy he might have had — his environmental legacy continued, thanks to one man. In 1973, Nixon appointed Russell Train to head the EPA. As a Republican administrator, Train centered the environment in American politics in an era when talk of conservation and regulation was bipartisan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of Russell Train’s birth.

After graduating from law school in 1948, Train began a career as a government tax attorney. He took two trips to Africa and found a new calling in environmental protection, thereafter co-founding the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation and soon taking leadership in the World Wildlife Fund. In 1965, he quit the U.S. Tax Court to dedicate his career to conservation.

When Nixon was approaching the presidency, his advisors picked Train to head a task force on the environment. As Train wrote in his memoir, Politics, Pollution, and Pandas, “The Nixon people made no effort to dictate or even suggest members, and I saw to it that the task force makeup was bipartisan.” The task force issued a report, claiming “environmental quality is a unifying goal that cuts across racial and economic lines, across political and social boundaries. It is a goal that provides a new perspective to many national problems and can give a new direction to national policy.”

At Train’s urgent recommendation, in 1970, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. The bill required reports on large projects under federal purview, and it proved to give unprecedented power to environmental groups when the courts began interpreting it as law. NEPA also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, of which Train became the first chair.

In the coming years, the Clean Air Act and Water Pollution Control Act Amendments passed as well. Train was a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the first such global summit, and he led the charge on the Coastal Zone Management Act as well as efforts to protect the Everglades. Ironically, as Nixon began to tire of environmental policy, privately, he also created the EPA, his broadest and most effectual environmental action. He placed Train as administrator — perhaps to get him out of the White House — in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Nixon was soon out, but Train remained in his position until 1977. In the EPA, he banned toxic agriculture chemicals and led in the approval of catalytic converters in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

In his memoir, Train sharply criticized George W. Bush and the president’s seeming rejection of Train’s legacy. In an interview in American Forests in 2006, Train gave a call for a return to his bipartisan environmentalism: “Overall, we need a brand new political climate that recognizes the environment is a key area of vital importance to this country today and in the future. It is of vital concern internationally and domestically. And we need a President who recognizes that and gives it full support. That’s what we need.”

Train was broadly supported by environmentalists during his tenure in government, including David Brower, the legendary head of the Sierra Club. In an interview in 1969, Train told John McPhee, “Thank God for Dave Brower. He makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable.” Years later, Brower responded during a lecture in Kentucky, singing praises for Train‘s principled career: “Thank God for Russell Train — he makes it so easy for anyone to appear outrageous.”

Featured image: EPA