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American Environmental Policy since 1964

Summary and Keywords

Between 1964 and 2017, the United States adopted the concept of environmental policy as a new focus for a broad range of previously disparate policy issues affecting human interactions with the natural environment. These policies ranged from environmental health, pollution, and toxic exposure to management of ecosystems, resources, and use of the public lands, environmental aspects of urbanization, agricultural practices, and energy use, and negotiation of international agreements to address global environmental problems. In doing so, it nationalized many responsibilities that had previously been considered primarily state or local matters. It changed the United States’ approach to federalism by authorizing new powers for the federal government to set national minimum environmental standards and regulatory frameworks with the states mandated to participate in their implementation and compliance. Finally, it explicitly formalized administrative procedures for federal environmental decision-making with stricter requirements for scientific and economic justification rather than merely administrative discretion. In addition, it greatly increased public access to information and opportunities for input, as well as for judicial review, thus allowing citizen advocates for environmental protection and appreciative uses equal legitimacy with commodity producers to voice their preferences for use of public environmental resources.

These policies initially reflected widespread public demand and broad bipartisan support. Over several decades, however, they became flashpoints, first, between business interests and environmental advocacy groups and, subsequently, between increasingly ideological and partisan agendas concerning the role of the federal government. Beginning in the 1980s, the long-standing Progressive ideal of the “public interest” was increasingly supplanted by a narrative of “government overreach,” and the 1990s witnessed campaigns to delegitimize the underlying evidence justifying environmental policies by labeling it “junk science” or a “hoax.”

From the 1980s forward, the stated priorities of environmental policy vacillated repeatedly between presidential administrations and Congresses supporting continuation and expansion of environmental protection and preservation policies versus those seeking to weaken or even reverse protections in favor of private-property rights and more damaging uses of resources. Yet despite these apparent shifts, the basic environmental laws and policies enacted during the 1970s remained largely in place: political gridlock, in effect, maintained the status quo, with the addition of a very few innovations such as “cap and trade” policies. One reason was that environmental policies retained considerable latent public support: in electoral campaigns, they were often overshadowed by economic and other issues, but they still aroused widespread support in their defense when threatened. Another reason was that decisions by the courts also continued to reaffirm many existing policies and to reject attempts to dismantle them.

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, along with conservative majorities in both houses of Congress, US environmental policy came under the most hostile and wide-ranging attack since its origins. More than almost any other issue, the incoming president targeted environmental policy for rhetorical attacks and budget cuts, and sought to eradicate the executive policies of his predecessor, weaken or rescind protective regulations, and undermine the regulatory and even the scientific capacity of the federal environmental agencies. In the early 21st century, it is as yet unclear how much of his agenda will actually be accomplished, or whether, as in past attempts, much of it will ultimately be blocked by Congress, the courts, public backlash, and business and state government interests seeking stable policy expectations rather than disruptive deregulation.

Keywords: environment, law, policy, pollution, regulation, federalism, conservation, public lands, energy, climate

Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy

The term “environmental policy” dates only from the 1960s, but the United States has had policies dealing with many aspects of the natural environment throughout its history.1 As early as the colonial era, policies established who had property rights to uses of land, water, trees, wildlife, and other resources. Constitutional provisions defined the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce in natural resources and to manage public lands, and the Fifth Amendment affirmed the requirements of due process and just compensation before any “taking” of private rights by the government. Nineteenth-century policies encouraged the westward settlement of the public lands and the development of natural resources for economic use, and provided public investments for developing waterways, canals, and railroads to connect those uses with urban and overseas markets. In mid-19th century cities, meanwhile, a sanitary reform movement led to policies for managing wastewater and improving the quality of drinking water.

By the late 19th century, these various strands of policy had produced a growing number of specialized government agencies and professions to manage forests, wildlife and fisheries, lakes and streams, public health, and other aspects of the environment. Then, in the early 20th century, president Theodore Roosevelt adopted policies reflecting an overarching philosophy of Progressive conservation: promoting efficient multiple-use management of the nation’s natural resources, protecting national parks and wildlife refuges, and implementing public-health regulations under the stewardship of administrative agencies staffed by technical professionals.2 The Great Depression of the 1930s prompted additional New Deal policy innovations: to restore agricultural soils and forests devastated by the dust storms of the 1930s, manage floods and boost economic recovery through public investment in multipurpose water resource development, build recreational infrastructures in the national parks and forests, and promote partnerships between federal agencies and organized local user groups such as farmers and ranchers.3

However, with the hyperindustrialization of World War II and the unprecedented boom in mass consumption and middle-class affluence that followed, commercial extraction of resources and transformation of the landscape for economic development increasingly collided with rising public demand for nature preservation, outdoor recreation, and protection from exposure to pesticides and industrial toxins. Conditions that had been tolerated as unavoidable byproducts of economic progress, especially during an economic depression and a global war, were no longer acceptable to a more broadly affluent middle class in peacetime. With comfortable suburban homes, cars, and appliances now widely available, production of material goods competed increasingly with demands for outdoor recreation and protection of natural beauty for families to share with their “baby boom” children. The discovery of radioactive fallout from faraway nuclear weapons tests in milk, and Rachel Carson’s impassioned plea for protection of songbirds from the impacts of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, raised public fears of hidden health risks. They also raised public consciousness of the science of ecology, which focused on the complex interactions of biological species with their environments, and not just on the economic uses of them. Increasingly, the government agencies managing natural resources found themselves in conflict among competing public demands, between conflicting scientific findings, and with one another.

In 1963 a distinguished public administration scholar, Lynton Caldwell, published an award-winning article that became one of the most widely read in its field. In “Environment: A New Focus of Public Policy?” Caldwell documented the growing conflicts among fragmented agencies and competing public policies for uses of nature, and proposed “environment” as a new focus for reconciling them by adopting a more integrated, ecological approach to policymaking and environmental management.4

Congress adopted Caldwell’s proposal in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which stated a national goal of promoting “conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.” At Caldwell’s urging, it also included “action-forcing provisions,” to force each agency to consider the full impacts of their actions instead of just the fulfillment of their individual missions and to choose the least damaging alternative to do so. In particular, it included a requirement that before approving any major federal action that might significantly affect the quality of the human environment, each had to prepare a detailed statement of the environmental impacts and alternatives—an “environmental impact statement”—and to circulate it for comment by all other agencies that might be affected and by the public, who might also then challenge it in the courts. President Nixon signed the law on New Year’s Day of 1970, using it as an opportunity to declare the 1970s a “decade of the environment” in which “it is now or never” to restore the cleanliness of the air and water and address traffic congestion, open space, and other environmental issues.5

The concept of environment also provided a powerful organizing focus for environmental politics. Membership in the major conservation advocacy groups increased dramatically during the 1960s, and new ones, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, emerged as well.6 The concept of environment motivated many of these interest groups—hitherto fragmented among wilderness preservation, national parks, wildlife conservation, pollution control, and other issues—to adopt it as an umbrella for more coordinated advocacy, forming the modern “environmental movement” that made its most visible debut with huge nationwide celebrations of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.7

Leveling the Playing Field

A distinguishing feature of the modern environmental policy era is its innovative use of the law of administrative procedures to level the playing field between traditionally powerful commercial users of environmental resources and newly influential citizen advocacy groups that were arguing for stronger environmental protection and preservation. In a seeming paradox, the new environmental movement demanded increased authority and activism by federal agencies in regulating pollution and preserving natural species and ecosystems. But the movement also rejected the Progressive trust in discretionary decision-making by technical professionals, viewing the agencies as perennially vulnerable to “capture” by environmentally damaging business interests. Movement activists therefore pushed for reforms in administrative law that gave citizen advocacy groups equal standing in the courts to challenge both businesses and government agencies that failed to aggressively implement environmental protection mandates.

The National Environmental Policy Act and the Freedom of Information Act, for instance, authorized public rights to review agency decision documents, including detailed statements identifying the environmental impacts of proposed government actions, the rationale for choosing among alternatives to them, and the comments by other agencies whose missions could be affected by them, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Decisions by the courts established a public right of standing to sue the agencies, not just for those with economic or property interests in the outcome (as in the past), but for anyone representing a public interest protected by law, such as environmental protection or ecological preservation, and, in some cases, in class actions representing other people similarly affected. The Clean Air Act and some other environmental laws even included provisions that allowed citizen lawsuits to compel the agencies to enforce their environmental protection mandates. Law professor Joseph Sax described the newly empowered public as “citizen attorneys general.”8 A new form of advocacy thus emerged. Environmental law groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, used strategic legal challenges through the courts, not just lobbying of legislators and administrators, to demand more protective policies. Henceforth, agency decisions could no longer be considered final until they also had been reviewed and upheld by the courts.

Environmental Federalism: National Regulatory Frameworks

A second major feature of modern environmental policy was a new model for environmental federalism. As recently as 1960, President Eisenhower vetoed federal funding for municipal wastewater treatment, arguing that water pollution was a “uniquely local” problem that should be solved by state and local authorities rather than the federal government.9 In 1970, however, President Nixon created the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by reorganizing into one unit many pollution-related programs that had previously been scattered among the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, the Public Health Service, and other agencies. And over the decade of the 1970s, Congress enacted a series of major new laws establishing primary authority at the national level for regulating air and water pollution, pesticides and toxic substances, drinking-water quality, and municipal and hazardous wastes. All these laws were enacted with strong bipartisan support, and most were signed by Republican presidents.10

The Clean Air Act of 1970, for instance, directed the EPA to set national ambient air-quality standards for half a dozen major combustion pollutants. It also set statutory standards for automobile emissions of air pollutants and required that all new sources of air pollution meet federal performance standards for emission control. The states were then required to develop and enforce EPA-approved implementation plans for achieving these standards; the EPA provided technical assistance, financial grants, and backup enforcement authority to support them. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 set federal goals for making all lakes and streams fishable and swimmable by 1983 and required all point sources of wastewater discharges (though not non-point sources such as agricultural runoff) to obtain permits meeting federal standards for pollution-control technology, goals the states were required to enforce. Solid and hazardous waste facilities also were required to obtain permits meeting federal standards, and all shipments of hazardous waste had to be documented. These programs, too, were delegated to the states for implementation. Products sold in interstate commerce—cars and trucks, pesticides, toxic chemicals, and others—were regulated directly by the EPA.

State and local governments were thus placed in conflicting roles. On the one hand, they remained sovereign states within the constraints of the US Constitution, and were free to implement additional and sometimes more stringent environmental policies of their own when not preempted by federal laws. However, they also were now required to implement and enforce federal minimum standards and frameworks for pollution control, with some technical and financial assistance from EPA to support their capacity to do so. And local governments providing environmental services such as drinking water, municipal wastewater discharges, and waste management were themselves subjects of EPA regulations, though with modest federal financial help for the construction of drinking-water and wastewater treatment facilities and the cleanup of contaminated hazardous waste sites.

From the states’ perspective as regulators, federal financial and technical assistance provided welcome support for developing their own environmental policymaking capacity and for some environmental facilities, and national environmental standards provided some protection against industrial flight. EPA also served as a “gorilla in the closet” to strengthen their hand (and to blame) when regulating influential businesses. But some EPA regulations also were underfunded and burdensome, and for better or worse, sometimes conflicted with state priorities and politics.

From 1970 to 2016 the EPA’s role expanded to include the regulation of additional pollutants, more stringent regulation of existing ones (as scientific evidence of their harmful effects increased), and regulation of additional and smaller sources such as small businesses and local governments (leaking underground storage tanks and drinking-water contaminants, for example). Congress generally declined to increase its budget commensurate with these additional responsibilities, however. Between 1980 and 2015, the EPA’s budget for pollution control and abatement actually declined in constant dollars by more than one-third.11 Beginning in the 1980s, EPA subsidies for drinking water and wastewater treatment also were reduced from federal grants to low-interest loans. As its regulatory demands increased and its ability to offer federal subsidies and assistance decreased, it became more vulnerable to political opposition.

Environmental Policy Innovations: Direct Regulation Versus “Market-Oriented” Incentives

The initial environmental policy tools authorized by Congress were overwhelmingly regulatory, augmented in a few cases by public investments and subsidies. National ambient air quality standards required states to maintain safe levels of air quality to protect human health with an adequate margin of safety, based solely on scientific health evidence. “Technology-based” regulations relied on performance standards equivalent to the best available technologies that had already been demonstrated; “risk-based” regulations authorized the EPA to restrict or ban individual pesticides, toxic substances and contaminants based on their toxicity and exposure risks.

As early as the mid-1970s, EPA officials recognized the value of using market-oriented incentives to implement these regulations more flexibly and efficiently. One example was tradable emission permits, which allowed increased emissions at one location if they were offset by greater reductions at another. This innovation was later coupled with an overall cap on the total emissions of particular pollutants from all regulated sources, such as the highly successful “cap and trade” regime established by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 to reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions from power plants, and the Cross-States Air Pollution Rule, which capped upwind states’ emissions affecting their downwind neighbors. Another innovative tool was the use of information disclosure regulations, which required disclosure of more detailed information about emissions and other environmental hazards to customers and investors, thus influencing their choices toward less harmful alternatives. Examples included the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), the “33/50” and Energy Star programs (which rewarded businesses with positive publicity for dramatically reducing their use of toxic chemicals and energy), and the disclosure requirements for asbestos and radon hazards.12 Some of these tools also were adopted by other agencies. The cap-and-trade mechanism, for instance, became an important policy innovation in the management of commercial fisheries, replacing counterproductive policies such as limited fishing seasons with individual transferable quotas (ITQs) as rights to share in the harvest of an overall maximum sustainable catch.

All these tools showed promise for achieving both more effective and more efficient reduction of pollution, as well as other benefits. They could only be applied, however, to uses for which Congress authorized them, and by the mid-1990s, Congress became too deeply gridlocked by increasingly polarized ideological partisanship to achieve much positive reform. Cap and trade, for instance, was one of the most promising tools proposed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but in 2010, an increasingly partisan Senate failed to approve it.

Nature Preservation and Ecosystem Management

Pollution control and protection from the health risks of toxic chemicals were one major thread of environmental policy after 1964. A second thread, no less important, was the preservation of natural environments, landscapes, and cultural assets, and the management of their ecosystems and wildlife species. Most of these issues involved policies for uses of the public lands: national parks, forests, monuments, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and other federally managed lands.

The federal government initially owned most of the US land mass west of the Appalachian Mountains, and in the modern era it continued to administer more than a quarter of the US land mass. These lands included nearly half the area of eleven western states and the offshore resources of its territorial seas, Outer Continental Shelf, and “exclusive economic zone” up to 200 miles from the coast.

During most of the 19th century most federal public lands could simply be claimed for private economic uses such as agricultural settlement, mining, and timber extraction, under the terms of hundreds of public land laws. From the late 19th century on, however, presidents and Congresses reserved large areas of the public lands for more specific uses under federal management. National forests were reserved for multiple-use management by the US Forest Service to protect watersheds and provide timber, grazing lands, fossil-fuel and other mineral resources, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation opportunities. National parks were established by Congress to conserve the scenery, natural and historical objects, and wildlife of particularly distinctive areas and to preserve them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. National monuments could be established by presidential declaration under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features of the public lands. Lands not otherwise designated were administered by the Bureau of Land Management, largely for cattle grazing, mining, and fossil-fuel leasing and for open access, recreational use, and other purposes.

In 1962, a congressionally sponsored Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission documented the dramatic rise in demand for outdoor recreation—driven by an increasingly affluent and mobile generation of young middle-class families—and the resulting need to give higher priority to these uses of the public lands.13 Beginning in the 1960s new policies raised the priority of environmental protection and preservation of their landscapes, ecosystems, and animal and plant species. The Land and Water Conservation Fund provided new revenues for land acquisition to “round out” the national parks and create new long-distance national trails. These purchases significantly increased the nation’s public recreational assets, but they also triggered conflicts with private landowners facing the threat of forced sales under eminent domain. The Wilderness Act of 1964 called for designation of large roadless areas on the public lands as permanently protected wilderness, protecting their pristine ecosystems by prohibiting future logging, mining, or other human intrusions other than low-impact recreation. And the Endangered Species Act of 1973 directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to designate any animal or plant species that were either threatened or endangered for potential extinction, and prohibited any action on public or even on private lands that would harm either the species or its critical habitat. The Endangered Species Act thus created an unusually explicit statutory prohibition restricting not only government and businesses but even private landowners from damaging endangered species or their ecosystems. Together, these laws greatly increased the amount of lands whose primary management criterion was to be preservation of natural species and ecosystems.

In the process, these laws also gave increased influence to organized advocates for nature preservation and low-impact recreational use and imposed new constraints on older uses of the public lands for logging, grazing, mining, and other forms of commercial resource extraction. Critics often portrayed these controversies as battles between local users and overreach by the national government. In fact, they were battles among conflicting local and national constituencies, such as ecological preservationists, Native American tribes, and low-impact recreation interests, and the outfitters and other businesses that catered to them, versus ranchers, commercial interests such as the oil and gas and mining industries, mass-recreation and off-road-vehicle interests, and local governments. Environmental groups sued the Forest Service, for example, to stop logging in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to preserve them as critical habitat for the endangered Northern spotted owl. Similar campaigns challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s management of grazing on lands that provided critical habitat for the greater sage grouse and other species.

New laws also made fundamental changes in the administrative procedures for multiple-use management of the public lands. Prior to the 1970s, both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had relatively broad administrative discretion to manage their lands for multiple uses, reflecting the Progressive philosophy of reliance on presumably apolitical experts to decide the best uses of these lands in the overall public interest. In practice, however, their discretion often favored commercial uses such as logging, grazing, and mining over recreational uses and ecosystem preservation. Under increasing political pressure to level the playing field among these competing constituencies, Congress in 1976 passed new laws reframing the planning and decision-making procedures of both agencies. The National Forest Management Act and the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act required each agency to use more formal, transparent, and publicly accessible planning procedures and to explicitly justify their previous discretionary decisions among conflicting uses. Taken together with substantive laws such as the Endangered Species Act, these laws opened the agencies to more effective political and legal challenges by groups advocating for environmental protection and ecosystem preservation.

In the 1990s, President Clinton sought to push a step further by redefining the agencies’ statutory mission of “multiple use” as “ecosystem management”—that is, management of the public lands for multiple uses within the constraints compatible with preserving them as sustainable ecosystems, rather than just maximizing the availability of the various authorized uses. President Obama, faced with increasing evidence of the impacts of global climate change, ordered new planning procedures and goals aimed at integrating ecosystem planning and management at broader regional-landscape scales, and across both public agencies and private landowners, to assure large enough critical habitats and connective corridors to allow adaptation to climate change. These initiatives were only partially successful, however, and in 2017 they were immediately rescinded by the incoming Trump administration.

A third major policy change was a dramatic increase in presidential use of the Antiquities Act to set aside areas as National Monuments. The Antiquities Act was passed in 1906 in response to the looting of Native American archaeological sites on public lands, such as Mesa Verde. Recognizing the slow and often difficult process of achieving congressional designation as a national park, it allowed the president to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest, and to restrict entry to them, by designating them as National Monuments by presidential proclamation. Before the 1970s, presidents generally used the act to protect only relatively specific sites. In 1979, however, President Carter used it to protect millions of acres in Alaska, even as Alaskan Senators were filibustering legislation that would have provided permanent protection. And beginning in the 1990s, presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama competed to one-up each other in setting aside more acres than their predecessors (in President Bush’s case, establishing the first Marine National Monuments, which protected millions of acres of ocean ecosystems around Hawaii and US trust territories in the Pacific). National Monument designations typically involved restrictions on future extractive uses such as logging, mining, and oil and gas leasing, as well as on motorized access by off-road-vehicle recreation clubs, which made some of them particularly contentious; examples included the Escalante-Grand Staircase and Bear’s Ears National Monuments in southern Utah.

Science-Based Environmental Policymaking

In both pollution control and nature protection, an important characteristic of modern environmental policy was a major increase in the use of science to justify environmental decisions. In part, this resulted from the increased documentation required to justify regulatory decisions under the Administrative Procedure Act and under the more formal planning procedures imposed on the public-land agencies. Agencies now had to justify their decisions based on a written record that provided supporting evidence, not simply on their discretionary judgment as experts. The increased use of science also resulted from the growing body of scientific information itself, as research produced greater understanding of chemical risks to human health, impacts of human activities on species and ecosystems, global climate change, and other environmental and ecological processes.

The National Environmental Policy Act, for example, required extensive documentation not simply of a project’s benefits to the agency’s mission, but also of the impacts of proposed actions and their alternatives on the environment. The EPA also was charged with setting science-based standards for air quality, drinking-water contaminant levels, pesticide tolerances, cleanup standards for contaminated sites, and other environmental health hazards, and the Fish and Wildlife Service was required to provide scientific evidence to justify protecting the habitats of endangered species. Each agency had to be able to defend its decisions against lawsuits arguing that they were either too stringent or not strong enough. As the courts upheld many of the agencies’ decisions, opponents sought instead to politicize the science itself, accusing the agencies of using “junk science” to justify overly stringent regulations.14

New staff members in the federal conservation agencies, meanwhile, brought an infusion of expertise from the modern ecological sciences that challenged traditional management approaches based simply on producing particular commodities such as logging, grazing, and mass recreation. Instead, they proposed adopting principles of adaptive, science-based ecosystem management. This meant, for instance, maintaining and protecting the habitat of indigenous species, letting natural fires burn, controlling invasive species, reintroducing predators and other species previously present, and limiting uses that conflicted with these principles. Overall, these changes often meant restricting commodity production and other human activities to try to maintain healthy ecological “baseline” conditions predating modern urban and industrial impacts. As at EPA, therefore, they led not only to conflicts over preferred uses of the public land, but also to political challenges to the scientific findings that were used to support restrictions on use. A prominent example was the propaganda campaign arguing that scientific evidence of human influence on climate change is merely a “hoax,” a charge employed by the Trump administration to justify reducing funding for climate-related scientific research and public access to its findings.15

At the same time, the evolving understanding of ecological science itself raised challenging new questions about the management of national parks, endangered species, and other ecological processes. How could national parks be managed to protect areas as pristine and unchanging when natural forces were themselves changing them? If wildlife species were subject to continuing natural pressures of selection, evolution, and changing environmental conditions, such as climate change, should agencies try to maintain them unchanged? And was this even possible? Should agencies try to prevent extinction of every subspecies, even at extremes of their range where they were struggling to survive anyway? Which pressures on them should management accept and adapt to, including human pressures such as hunting, farming, mass recreation, and other uses, as well as natural forces and climate change, and which should they try to prevent? Such scientific questions posed both practical and value challenges for advocates of ecological sustainability, as well as for advocates of more active human uses of the environment.16

Urban and Agricultural Ecosystems

No less important than controlling pollution and preserving nature were policies shaping the urban and agricultural environments in which people lived and worked. Historian William Cronon in particular criticized mainstream environmental advocates for focusing too exclusively on protecting seemingly pristine natural landscapes and ecosystems while paying too little attention to sustainable management of the ecosystems in which most people actually live and where they have the greatest impact.17

Urban development in postwar America was dominated by mass-produced single-family housing developments dependent on automobiles: suburban sprawl, facilitated by federal policies such as inexpensive self-amortizing guaranteed mortgages and federal funding of highway construction.18 Against this background, landscape architect Ian McHarg in 1969 published a visionary guide to a more environmentally informed approach to urbanization. His Design With Nature advocated integrating urban development more harmoniously and intelligently into its ecological setting rather than simply stripping and replacing it with built structures and hardened surfaces.19 His book became a touchstone for environmental planners and enlightened designers of many individual projects, but it had only limited impact on public policies shaping the urban environment. In 1987 the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development issued an influential report calling for “sustainable development”--that is, economic development that was fully integrated with improving environmental protection and social justice--and in 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the “Earth Summit”), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, adopted this approach in its Agenda 21.20 Several hundred US local governments subsequently undertook initiatives to pursue this approach, and President Clinton created a President’s Council on Sustainable Development to encourage and highlight them, but it remained almost exclusively a focus for voluntary local initiatives.21

Environmental policies for urban ecosystems thus remained a fragmented patchwork rather than a coherent or integrated vision. Environmental impact assessments, federal permit requirements for filling of wetlands, and critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act became significant new constraints on development projects. Federal air quality standards became one of the most influential policies: mandates that cities reduce motor vehicle emissions sometimes necessitated more compact development. In 1991 the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) redirected some highway funds to mass transit and bicycle and pedestrian pathways, and by the early years of the 21st century the EPA and some local governments were beginning to promote integrated developments combining commercial with residential uses, urban “infill,” and “Smart Cities” as alternatives to suburban sprawl. Federal regulations and subsidies helped drive lead paint removal from some older housing; EPA “brownfields” policies provided incentives for cleanup and redevelopment of old contaminated industrial sites in otherwise valuable locations; and tightening of federal standards for energy-efficient buildings and appliances and tax breaks for solar energy gradually drove more widespread investments in “green buildings.” Overall, however, urban development practices continued to be driven primarily by the commercial decisions of developers and investment institutions, some but not all of which became more environmentally conscious.

Agricultural ecosystems were similarly subject to a patchwork of relevant but fragmented policies. The dominant US farm policies from the Great Depression on were aimed at encouraging production and stabilizing prices, especially of major grain crops such as corn, and encouraging consolidation of production into large, capital-intensive monocropping of grains and “factory farming” of animals. They thus promoted increasing dominance by large-scale agribusinesses making intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization, all of which were heavily dependent on fossil fuels and were sources of significant air and water pollution as well as threats to important species such as bees and butterflies.22

Beginning in the 1970s the federal government provided additional subsidies for voluntary agricultural conservation practices, but these programs received only modest budgets and were in constant tension with incentives to plant more crops, such as policy-guaranteed markets to grow additional corn for ethanol production as a partial substitute for gasoline.23 In addition, the EPA was specifically prohibited from regulating “non-point” sources of water pollution such as agricultural runoff. While it tried to regulate more strictly the conversion of wetlands to cropland, its recent “Waters of the United States” rule to do so was strenuously opposed by the farm and developer lobbies, and in 2017 the Trump administration immediately proposed a reinterpretation that would significantly narrow and weaken it.24

As a creative response to the enduring political popularity of agricultural subsidies, innovative policies were proposed to provide new kinds of environmentally-oriented subsidies. These included paying subsidies to maintain “ecosystem services” such as water purification, pollination, soil fertility protection, flood mitigation, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration through their agricultural practices. In the United States, however, these remained limited and experimental.25

For all these reasons, US environmental policies for agriculture remained fragmented, lacking any coherent vision beyond soil conservation for ecologically sustainable management of agroecosystems. Two modest but positive broader trends since the 1970s included the dramatic growth of organic farming, which included federal product standards but was driven far more by rising consumer demand, and the emergence of a “sustainable agriculture” movement, which sought to develop and promote more ecologically sustainable practices. Both of these movements, however, remained far less influential than the large-scale commodity-subsidy policies that continued to drive much of American agriculture.

US Policies for the Global Environment

Finally, the United States’ modern environmental policies included its influential but ambivalent role in addressing global environmental issues.26 The United States played a leading role in developing postwar international policymaking institutions including the United Nations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, among others, as well as the Marshall Plan, Food for Peace, and other development aid programs. These programs were not specifically aimed at environmental policy goals, and many had both mixed motives and decidedly mixed environmental impacts. But they defined a period of active US leadership in global policy initiatives and institutions up through the 1960s.

On environmental policy issues, the U.S. also was a world leader in negotiating a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, perhaps the first truly global environmental policy agreement, and in initial multilateral global initiatives for environmental policy in the 1970s. Examples included the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm and the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, among others. US environmental science, standards, and policies and policy innovations such as cap-and-trade regimes also became models for many other nations as they created their own environmental policies.

By the early 21st century, however, the U.S. also remained an outlier in its adoption of more unilateral and nationalistic policies toward the use of many of the world’s environmental resources, its unwillingness to ratify many global environmental agreements and institutions, and its lack of interest in adopting international approaches to environmental policy, such as “sustainable development,” the “polluter pays” principle, the “precautionary principle,” and others, as conceptual approaches for its own policies.27 In the mid-1940s, for instance, President Truman unilaterally declared US sovereignty over an “exclusive economic zone” up to 200 miles off its coast, motivating other nations to do the same. President Nixon helped initiate negotiations toward a new global agreement on law of the sea, but President Reagan subsequently withdrew from them, and the Senate repeatedly failed to ratify it, even on the urging of Republican presidents, military leaders, and many conservatives. Many other multilateral agreements on environmental issues were signed by large majorities of the world’s nations, but not signed, and even fewer ratified, by the United States. Republican presidents especially showed far less commitment to leadership and support of later global environmental initiatives such as the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and others.

Two issues illustrate the contrast between US global policy leadership on a few issues and its abdication of leadership on others. In the first case, US scientists during the 1970s raised concerns that a small but widely used family of chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, might be severely damaging the stratospheric ozone layer that moderates the Earth’s exposure to solar radiation, and in the early 1980s, British scientists documented evidence of a growing seasonal “hole” in the ozone layer. With the concurrence even of scientists in the affected chemical industry, the United States became one of the leaders in negotiating the 1985 Vienna Convention and the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Signed by President Reagan and ratified by the Senate, the Montreal Protocol is widely considered one of the most important, successful, and effective multilateral environmental agreements.28

The second case, in contrast, involved growing evidence of disruptive changes in the global climate attributed to human combustion of fossil fuels. As early as 1977 a sobering report by the National Research Council proposed that global climate change was a serious concern, and that it might be necessary for industrial civilizations worldwide to abandon fossil fuels and substitute other energy sources within the coming half century.29 Testimony by a leading NASA climate scientist in 1988 warned that the evidence of global warming was now clear and was attributable to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel combustion. Unlike chlorofluorocarbons, however, fossil-fuel combustion had been a ubiquitous driver of the modern economy since the Industrial Revolution, and the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, as well as elected officials in states that are dependent on fossil-fueled industries, resisted this concern as a mortal threat, mobilizing a massive propaganda campaign to try to discredit not only proposed policy solutions but even the underlying science supporting them.

President George H. W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, and the Senate ratified it, accepting the premise of human impact on climate change and the responsibility of the advanced industrial nations to take the lead in responding to it. However, both at the time and in later negotiations, from the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 to the Paris Agreement in 2015, the United States refused to agree to any binding targets for reducing CO2 emissions. US policies to address climate change swung repeatedly back and forth between support for investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to mitigate emissions, under presidents Clinton and Obama, and the reassertion of incentives to continue and even increase fossil-fuel production, under Presidents George W. Bush and Trump.30

With Congress ultimately unable to pass legislation to address climate change, President Obama attempted to address it administratively through EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act. However, the election of Donald Trump as his successor, along with conservative majorities in the House and Senate, foreshadowed a sharp political backlash against climate mitigation in particular and against federal environmental regulation more generally. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from participation in the historic Paris Agreement on climate change—alone among the world’s nations—represented perhaps the most vivid example yet of a president abdicating the United States’ global leadership, and even many broad economic and geopolitical interests, to satisfy narrower nationalistic domestic political constituencies and entrenched fossil-fuel interests. On few environmental policies were US policymakers so profoundly divided by party, ideology, and immediate economic and political self-interest.

US environmental policy since 1964 has achieved substantial accomplishments, but it remains fragmented, imperfect, and contested. After a half century, it continues to maintain an uneasy status quo: blocked by congressional gridlock from either strengthening or weakening its primary statutes, buffeted by repeated reversals in policy commitments by changing presidencies, and plagued by constant battles among organized advocates seeking advantage through less visible tools—such as budget cuts, special-purpose spending restrictions, regulatory reinterpretations, and additional procedural requirements, among others—to favor their own constituencies. In the 2010s, the future of US environmental policy remains uncertain. Despite current presidential rhetoric, it is possible that Congress, the courts, and public and business opposition will once again block most proposals to weaken or abolish the nation’s basic environmental statutes and regulations. It appears likely that the current administration will cause deep and lasting damage, however, by hollowing out the agencies’ staff, morale, and the scientific and enforcement capacity necessary for them to faithfully execute the laws.31

With US federal policy so deeply gridlocked, meanwhile, policy leadership in addressing climate change and other global issues will pass to other industrial nations, such as the European Union and China, and to the continuing commitment of most other nations arising from the 2015 Paris Agreement despite the United States’ abdication. Domestically, that policy leadership may pass to influential states, such as California; to leading cities; and to many major businesses that have longer investment horizons and more global interest in climate mitigation than current US policymakers.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature of environmental history has grown considerably over the past several decades, with a primary focus defined as the interactions of humans with the natural world and resulting changes in environmental conditions and ecosystems. Some of this work addresses the role of public policies among the forces affecting particular changes, but the history of environmental policy itself is not often the primary focus, with the exception of a few specific topics (see, for instance, the bibliographies available from the American Society for Environmental History).

The term “environmental policy” did not come into use until the 1960s, but it clearly has roots in much older and well-established subfields, such as histories of conservation, history of the US public lands and forests, and history of public health. Some of these subfields have large literatures themselves, especially on public-lands policies, but relatively few deal with the overall history of environmental policies; this is especially true for the period since 1964. A few of the most salient are listed in the “Further Readings” section. There is also, of course, a large literature dealing with environmental politics, and with the politics of specific contemporary environmental issues, some (but not all) of which includes historical aspects of their topics.

Doing historical research on environmental policy since 1964 therefore requires the use of primary sources, such as the relevant government documents; histories of the relevant agencies where they exist; and historical literature on broader related topics, such as the histories of particular presidencies. It also involves the use—with appropriate caution in evaluating the interests, motives, and perspectives involved—of first-person accounts by former government officials, and of policy studies by knowledgeable think tanks and by applied research and advocacy organizations.

Primary Sources

A first primary source for research on recent and contemporary environmental policy is the texts of the policy documents themselves, and of official publications documenting their enactment and interpretation: statutes and bills, regulations, presidential executive orders and guidance documents, judicial decisions, and related documents such as the texts of congressional hearings and floor debates. A valuable gateway to current materials is US Government Information, published by the US Government Printing Office; see also Presidential documents (see “Briefing Room” tab), Congressional legislation and legislative proposals, the Federal Register and US Code of Federal Regulations, and decisions of the US Supreme Court and subsidiary courts.

A second set of useful primary sources includes reports issued by presidents, environmental agencies, and others, such as the Congressional Research Service (also here) and Government Accountability Office, both of which provide reliable summaries and informative analyses of particular policy issues. The president’s Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Science and Technology Policy have been valuable sources of information on presidential environmental policies and initiatives during some administrations, but they are entirely dependent on the preferences of each president as to what those priorities are and how extensive and reliable their publications are (compare for instance CEQ here and here, and OSTP here and here). Among the administrative agencies, the Department of Energy has many useful historical statistics and other information; the US Forest Service also has good history resources, and the Bureau of Land Management useful historical statistics. The Environmental Protection Agency has good documentation on the development and changes of particular regulations, but far more limited historical information of other kinds.

In addition to these primary sources, nongovernmental policy research organizations such as the National Research Council, Resources for the Future,, and other respected think tanks provide many useful analyses of environmental policy issues and related evidence from science and economics, much of it peer reviewed. Studies by more advocacy-oriented and stakeholder organizations can also be used, with appropriate recognition of their potential biases and limitations, to identify and understand the claims being advanced by the various stakeholder interests in environmental policy issues, without the researcher necessarily accepting their claims oneself.

Finally, law journal articles often provide unusually thorough and useful secondary-source analyses of environmental laws, regulations, and other policies, as well as detailed accounts of arguments over their histories and interpretations. Since they usually are extensively footnoted, they also provide useful starting points for identifying both primary sources and other influential secondary sources. Most are available through academic libraries via LexisNexis Academic; many can be accessed directly via the Internet.

Further Reading

Alagona, Peter. After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.Find this resource:

    Andrews, Richard. Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

      Bosso, Christopher. Environment, Inc. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.Find this resource:

        Davies, Terry, and Jan Mazurek. Regulating Pollution: Does the U.S. System Work? Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1997.Find this resource:

          Durant, Robert. The Administrative Presidency Revisited: Public Lands, the BLM, and the Reagan Revolution. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.Find this resource:

            Durant, Robert, Daniel Fiorino, and Rosemary O’Leary, eds. Environmental Governance Reconsidered: Challenges, Choices, and Opportunities. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.Find this resource:

              Fedkiw, John. Managing Multiple Uses on National Forests, 1905–1995. Washington, DC: US Forest Service, FS-628, 1998.Find this resource:

                Fehner, Terrence, and Jack Hall. Department of Energy 1977–1994: A Summary History. Oak Ridge, TN: U.S. Department of Energy, 1994.Find this resource:

                  Flippen, J. Brooks. Nixon and the Environment. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                    Graham, John. Bush on the Home Front. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                      Hays, Samuel. A History of Environmental Politics since 1945. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                        Klyza, Christopher, and David Sousa. American Environmental Policy. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                          Layzer, Judith. Open for Business: Conservatives’ Opposition to Environmental Regulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                            Lazarus, Richard. The Making of Environmental Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                              Lindstrom, Matthew, and Zachary Smith. The National Environmental Policy Act: Judicial Misconstruction, Legislative Indifference, and Executive Neglect. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                                Meadowcroft, James, and James Fiorino. Conceptual Innovation in Environmental Policy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                                  Vig, Norman, and Michael Kraft. Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century. 10th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2018.Find this resource:

                                    Wilkinson, Charles. Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1992.Find this resource:


                                      (1.) For an overall account of this history, see Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy, 2d ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). For additional details, see also Norman Vig and Michael Kraft, eds., Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 10th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2018); and Christopher Klyza and David Sousa, American Environmental Policy, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

                                      (2.) See, for instance, Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (New York: Atheneum, 1969).

                                      (3.) Cf. Richard N. L. Andrews, “Recovering FDR’s Environmental Legacy,” in FDR and the Environment, eds. Henry L. Henderson and David B. Woolner (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 221–243.

                                      (4.) Lynton K. Caldwell, “Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy,” Public Administration Review 23 (1963): 132–139.

                                      (5.) Richard Nixon, Remarks on Signing the National Environmental Policy Act, January 1, 1970, American Presidency Project online, by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley.

                                      (6.) Michael Kraft, Environmental Policy and Politics, 7th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2017), table 4.2; Baird Straughan and Thomas Pollak, The Broader Movement: Nonprofit Environmental and Conservation Organizations, 1989–2005 (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2008), appendix B.

                                      (7.) “Earth Day,”, n.d.; Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013).

                                      (8.) Joseph Sax, Defending the Environment (New York: Knopf, 1971).

                                      (9.) James Sundquist, Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1968), 323.

                                      (10.) A rare but important exception was the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (the Clean Water Act), which Congress passed with a bipartisan majority, overriding President Nixon’s veto. Nixon objected to the fiscal impacts of its multi-billion-dollar subsidies for the construction of wastewater treatment plants.

                                      (11.) Michael Kraft and Norman Vig, Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 9th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2016), 19.

                                      (12.) US Environmental Protection Agency, “The United States Experience with Economic Incentives for Protecting the Environment” (report, EPA-240-R-01-001, Washington, DC, January 2001).

                                      (13.) US Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Outdoor Recreation for America (ORRRC report, Washington, DC, 1962).

                                      (14.) Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).

                                      (15.) Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton, “How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science,” New York Times, June 3, 2017.

                                      (16.) Daniel Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

                                      (17.) William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 69–90.

                                      (18.) Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

                                      (19.) Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (New York: John Wiley, 1969).

                                      (20.) World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Agenda 21 (1992).

                                      (22.) Paul Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

                                      (23.) Craig Cox, “U.S. Agriculture Conservation Policy and Programs: History, Trends, and Implications,” in “U.S. Agricultural Policy and the 2007 Farm Bill,” eds. Kaush Arsha, Tim Josling, Daniel A. Sumner, and Barton H. Thompson (report, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford, CA), 113–146.

                                      (25.) Rebecca Goldman, Barton H. Thompson, and Gretchen C. Daily, “Managing for Ecosystem Services on U.S. Agricultural Lands,” in Arsha et al., U.S. Agricultural Policy and the 2007 Farm Bill, 97–112.

                                      (26.) See also Kurk Dorsey, “American Environmental Diplomacy,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (April 2016).

                                      (27.) Jutta Brunnée, “The United States and International Environmental Law: Living with an Elephant,” European Journal of Environmental Law 15 (2004): 617–649.

                                      (28.) Edward Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

                                      (29.) US National Research Council, Energy and Climate (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1977).

                                      (30.) Cf. Amy Royden, “U.S. Climate Change Policy under President Clinton: A Look Back,” Golden Gate University Law Review 32 (2002): 415–478; and Armin Rosencranz, “U.S. Climate Policy under G. W. Bush,” Golden Gate University Law Review 32 (2002): 479–491.

                                      (31.) Richard Andrews, “The Environmental Protection Agency,” in Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-first Century, 10th ed., by Norman Vig and Michael Kraft (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, in press).