In May of 1983, President Reagan emerged from the Oval Office and instructed an aide, “I want to talk to this man, Adams, to find out why he dislikes me so much.” Ansel Adams—famous for black-and-white photographs of Yosemite National Park—hated Reagan’s “environmental policies.” Adams was not alone; environmental groups opposed Reagan years before he took office.
Adams, though, took his opposition to an obsessive degree, sending “a letter a day to newspapers and congressmen decrying President Reagan’s ‘disastrous’ environmental policies.” He warned of “catastrophe,” “tragedy,” “the Pearl Harbor of our American Earth,” and finally declared in a magazine interview, “I hate Reagan.”
The next month, Reagan decided it was “time to clear the air and straighten out the record on where my administration stands on environmental and natural resources management matters,” which was how he began his weekly radio address on June 11, 1983. Delivered from Camp David, Reagan’s talk, which he had made the effort to write out personally, put several complex subjects in simple straightforward language. Reagan had facility with these issues. He acted on them as California governor and researched, wrote, and gave hundreds of radio addresses on them after leaving Sacramento. Now, as president, he delivered yet another report on the subject, which he closed with, “We have made a commitment to protect the health of our citizens and to conserve our nation’s natural beauty and resources…. Thanks to [our] efforts, our country remains ‘America the Beautiful.’ Indeed, it’s growing healthier and more beautiful each year. I hope this helps set the record straight, because it’s one we can all be proud of.”
Three weeks later, in Beverly Hills, Reagan met Adams, whom Reagan called, “the great nature photographer.” Afterward, Reagan wrote in his diary: “He has expressed hatred for me because of my supposed stand on the environment. I asked for the meeting. I gave him chapter [and] verse about where I really stand on the environment [and] what our record is. All in all the meeting seemed pleasant enough [and] I thought maybe I’d taken some of the acid out of his ink.”
Adams, however, emerged from the meeting unassuaged and vented to reporters. He assailed Reagan personally—faulting his intelligence, imagination, and “aura”—and attacked his policies and the people appointed to implement them. Nonetheless, noted the Washington Post, “[f]or all his intense anger at [Reagan and his appointees], Adams said he is hard-pressed to document widespread environmental damage from their policies.” Wrote Reagan in his diary after reading the article, “I’m afraid I was talking to ears that refused to hear.”
The story of Reagan’s battle with environmentalists, like Adams and the huge organizations that speak for them from San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., has never been told. Despite conventional wisdom, the battle was not about protecting the environment—Reagan was an environmentalist himself; instead, it was about whether people are part of the ecosystem, as Reagan argued, and between two competing visions of government. That battle posited powerful New Deal–style government run by progressives and technocrats against limited government that emphasized individual liberty and economic freedom.
These two visions grew out of dueling sets of core beliefs. “Environmental extremists,” as Reagan termed them, believe that humans are at war with their own planet, their faith in human ingenuity and belief in technology is infantile, and their only hope is lives of government mandated scarcity and sacrifice. Reagan would have none of this gloom and doom because he believed that wise use of the nation’s abundant energy and natural resources would revive the economy, defeat the Soviet Union, and build a bright future for all Americans. Along the way, Reagan restored national parks, made them accessible to the American people, and created more wilderness lands than any president in history! Nonetheless, environmental extremists hated Reagan, lied about him then, and lie about him today. Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today (Regnery, 2013) tells the truth.
William Perry Pendley is from Wyoming, a former Marine captain, an attorney with victories at the Supreme Court of the United States, and a recognized authority on natural resources, environmental, and constitutional law. He served in the Interior Department under President Reagan.