Nature Spoke — and These Presidents Listened

© Chris Burkard

While CI launched its campaign in 2014, nature of course has been speaking for eons. Every now and then, the message reached the Oval Office — and U.S. presidents listened.

Sometimes they took small steps, like placing solar panels on the White House roof (Jimmy Carter). Other times they felt particularly ambitious and protected over 230 million acres [93 million hectares] of forests and land (Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the most notable champion for conservation).

In honor of Presidents Day (celebrated in the U.S. this year on Monday, February 16), here are some other examples of how commanders-in-chief heeded nature’s call:

Redwood Spoke, and Abraham Lincoln Listened

In 1854, businessman George Gale ordered workers to remove the bark of a 2,250-year-old giant sequoia in California’s Yosemite Valley, effectively killing the tree. Called “Mother of the Forest,” the tree stood over 300 feet [91 meters] high — a feature that drove Gale to view the redwood as a commercial opportunity. After it was felled, “Mother of the Forest” became an “oddity” and was sent to Broadway in New York. The bark was later displayed at London’s Crystal Palace before a fire destroyed it in 1866.

A decade later, Abraham Lincoln took action to help other redwoods from meeting the same fate. An overlooked achievement of his presidency is the signing of one of the nation’s first conservation laws — The Yosemite Valley Grant Act, which transferred federal lands in the Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California, “upon the express condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.”

Lincoln never made it to California to see the big trees up close, but because he listened to nature, millions of people have witnessed the redwood’s towering beauty and will be able to “for all time.”

The Soil Spoke, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Listened

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

Decades before Edward Norton gave voice to The Soil, FDR spoke the above words in the throes of the Dust Bowl. With soil turning to blowing dust across the Great Plains, widespread crop failures and families forced to abandon their farms, FDR took measures to promote soil health and combat soil erosion.

The Soil Conservation Act of 1935 established the Soil Conservation Service and provided farmers with subsidies to plant native grasses, trees and vegetables instead of commercial crops that depleted soil nutrients. Three years after Roosevelt signed the bill, soil erosion in the United States had dropped 65 percent.

The Soil Conservation Service was also in charge of 500 Civilian Conservation Corps camps that focused on erosion control — alongside hundreds of other camps that employed over 2.5 million Americans to plant billions of trees, improve and build parks and trails and clean up streams.

Like many of FDR’s New Deal programs, the basis of the Soil Conservation Service still exists as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides technical assistance to farmers and private landowners to “improve, protect and conserve natural resources.” (Bonus fact: In addition to signing one of the first conservation laws, Lincoln was also the founding president of the USDA!)

Water Spoke, and Richard Nixon Listened

One of Nixon’s often overlooked legacies is his ushering in our nation’s most important period of environmental legislation, including the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and his signing of the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, among others.

Perhaps most importantly, Americans have Nixon to thank for access to the very essence of life: His signing of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 provided regulation of the nation’s public drinking water supply.

So the next time you fill your water bottle, think beyond Nixon’s tarnished record and remember him as an integral environmental leader.

Flower Spoke, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson Listened

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

By extension, first ladies have frequently assumed significant leadership roles and tackled important issues while their husbands oversaw the free world. Lady Bird Johnson (wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson) left perhaps the loveliest of legacies: wildflowers along America’s highways.

Colloquially known as Lady Bird’s Bill, a testament to her fervent support, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 primarily aimed to limit billboards and other outdoor ads, as well as junkyards, from appearing along interstates. The bill also encouraged “scenic enhancement and roadside development,” two efforts that influenced the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987, which requires that at least 0.25 of 1% of funds spent on highway landscaping projects be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.

Echoing the future words of Lupita Nyong’o as Flower, Lady Bird Johnson was also well aware that flowers hold values beyond beauty. Knowing the myriad benefits of native plants, she created the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 (later renamed, fittingly, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center). Aiming to increase sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers and plants, the center — spread across 279 acres [113 hectares] in Austin, Texas, and displaying more than 700 plant species — works to teach everyone how native wildflowers conserve water and help minimize the use of fertilizers and insecticides.

The Ocean and Coral Reef Spoke, and George W. Bush (and then Barack Obama) Listened

Listening to nature can be a beautiful, bipartisan act. Case in point: The Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument, the largest marine reserve in the world, was first proclaimed by George W. Bush in 2009 and then expanded by Barack Obama in 2014.

Thanks to these back-to-back presidencies, more than 1.2 million square kilometers (around 490,000 square miles) of area surrounding U.S.-controlled tropical islands and atolls in the central Pacific Ocean are now protected from commercial fishing, mining and waste dumping. And good thing, because the monument (about three times the size of California) boasts deep coral reefs, seamounts and unique marine ecosystems that support rare sea turtles and whales, as well as trees and grasses found nowhere else on the planet.

It’s not easy to get both sides of the aisle to agree on much. But when nature speaks, leaders across history from all political backgrounds have listened. Happy Presidents Day!