Base Environmental Policies on Liberty, Not Socialism

This is the eighth in an occasional series of exclusive articles in which leading conservatives who served in the Reagan Administration explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week, Becky Norton Dunlop, who served as deputy undersecretary for the Department of the Interior and assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks at the Department of the Interior under President Reagan addresses the environment.

Ronald Reagan demonstrated his interest, respect and concern for the natural resources with which we have been blessed in a very personal way. He purchased and maintained a ranch on a mountaintop in California and was a perfect example of good stewardship of the environment. He lived modestly at the ranch, used two fireplaces to heat his adobe home, cut timber for firewood and for forest management, cleared brush for fire protection and wildlife management, and “recycled” discarded telephone poles into fencing for his horses and cattle. He took every advantage of modern technology and development but did not abandon his commitment to wisely using resources and caring for his property with a strong stewardship ethic.

Commonsense Balance

Too many people talk a good game about their care and concern for our natural resources and the environment but have no personal connection to it. They have no understanding of the science that underlies good environmental policy and no commitment to encouraging personal stewardship. Reagan believed that our natural resources were to be used for the betterment of mankind and that each of us had a responsibility to be good stewards so that future generations would be able to enjoy these resources, too.

In a 1967 letter to constituents, then-Gov. Reagan wrote that he believed that the vast majority of people wanted to achieve a commonsense balance on environmental issues and that his policies were intended to strike such a balance. He also made a point of saying that he was concerned Americans’ traditional right of private ownership might be seriously eroded as a result of concern with the environment. In 1973, he made a speech to the Association of California Water Agencies in which he said, “We do not have to choose between the environment and jobs. We can set a commonsense course between those who would cover the whole country with concrete in the name of progress, and those who think you should not build a house unless it looks like a bird’s nest or a rabbit hole.”

As President and as governor of California, Reagan had many issues to deal with that went to the very core of what the role of government is. Wise use of our natural resources and consideration of resource needs in the daily activities of industry and government in a growing economy were important to President Reagan in setting firm policy directions based on constitutional principles and his own personal moral dictates. He would be disappointed that more action has not been taken at the federal level to protect private property and would have been appalled at the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision.

During his tenure as President, he charged the federal agencies that have primary responsibility for the federal role in environment and natural resources with putting in place commonsense policies. President Reagan believed that all federal lands should be managed wisely within the law but with proper flexibility that would allow for using these lands for economic activities.

The national forests, for instance, were supposed to be used to provide wood fiber for economic activities in our nation. Wise management of the national forests could produce millions of board feet of timber in a sustainable manner. On Reagan’s watch, the largest harvest of timber from the national forests occurred, and yet the forests remained healthy and vibrant, providing a home to wildlife and recreational opportunities for millions of people. This was sustainable forestry using good science. Reagan would be disappointed with the poor management of the national forests today that is resulting in a depleted timber yield and vast acres of forests being destroyed by fire. He would repeat his strongly held view that a commonsense, science-based policy should prevail and that environmental radicals should not be able to hold hostage sound scientific management practices through litigation.

At the Department of the Interior, President Reagan encouraged not only wise use of our resources but good stewardship, too. The “Take Pride in America” program was created and promoted by the President and his environment and natural resources officials from across the federal government. This program, along with the Volunteers in the National Parks program, gave support, encouragement and education about the resiliency of our natural resources to millions of interested and concerned citizens.

The Energy Department, which was slated for elimination by the Reagan Administration, nevertheless had a charge to carry out until that occurred (a goal that was never achieved). That charge was to encourage and permit maximum development of our domestic energy resources so that America could not be held hostage by other energy-producing countries. The President eliminated the federal price and allocation controls on oil, increased the strategic petroleum reserve, opened more federal lands for exploration and implemented reforms that allowed the energy industry to be granted flexibility from the regulatory red tape that had been preventing their finding and developing more domestic resources that would reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Today, he would be seeking the opening of ANWR for oil exploration, increased off-shore drilling, more use of energy resources on federal lands and a return to the use of nuclear power. He believed the U.S. should not be energy captives of unfriendly forces when we have access to all the energy we need within our own shores.

Reagan also employed his commonsense doctrine of balance and good science in his directing the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce burdensome red tape while enforcing the laws. The so-called environmentalists and the command-and-control zealots on Capitol Hill gave no credit to the administration for its commitment to the law and the results it achieved, but carped, criticized and attacked the administration for what it characterized as the lessening of regulations and lax enforcement.

There are other parts of the federal government that have environmental responsibilities, and, at the beginning of his administration, President Reagan established a Cabinet Council on Natural Resources and the Environment to guide his polices government-wide. This council was a sub-group of his Cabinet, and it met on a regular basis during his first term. No presidency before or since has devoted such high-level attention to the challenges and opportunities of America’s natural resources. And no President gets less credit for the very positive results of his leadership.

Reagan’s Principles

What were the principles that guided President Reagan? First, he believed that people were the most important resource and that our natural resources should be used in ways that would benefit mankind. Ronald Reagan knew that a growing economy and an improving environment would go hand-in-hand. He understood the absolute necessity of employing sound science to management of natural resources and environmental standards. He rejected the Socialist view of environmental management and the regulatory scheme of “one size fits all” regulations. He supported the principle of federalism in environmental management and was strongly committed to the principle of protection of property rights. And Reagan knew that environmental policies that emanate from liberty are the most successful.

Ronald Reagan changed the world in many ways, and much has been written about his economic policies that began a record period of economic growth, his role in defeating the Soviet Union and his success in helping Americans believe in themselves again. Today, Ronald Reagan would tell the American people that it is once again time for us to change the world, reassert our willingness to develop our own natural resources in order to maintain our economic growth without concern about possible extortion by other countries with energy resources, and to demonstrate that a free people can develop their environmental resources for the well-being of families and do so in a responsible way.


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