- - Monday, September 9, 2013

By William Perry Pendley
Regnery Publishing, $27.95, 370 pages

The title of this book has a yesteryear quality, but Ronald Reagan’s philosophy and actions about the environment are, if anything, more timely today than they were when he began defining them in his early years in politics.

The Sagebrush Rebellion was a movement largely by ranchers and timber people in the interior West in the latter years of the Carter administration to fight back against what they saw as undue government regulations and hostile policies by government agencies, which owned much Western land.

Reagan took up their cause, for it fit his own belief that citizens and their elected representatives should fight against government overreach.

Long a conservationist, Reagan, as governor of California, thwarted plans to build a trans-Sierra highway near the Minarets just south of Yosemite National Park.

He also said “no” to a federal dam, Dos Rios, that would have flooded the ranches of the Indians who had made Round Valley home for decades. While the Bureau of Reclamation did not require a governor’s approval for its projects, in fact, it never won a governor’s approval. So the Dos Rios Dam died.

Reagan saw as universal the desire for clean air, clean water and conservation of resources. Yet he also saw the environmental movement growing militant and unwilling to understand that a dynamic society needs economic growth for all of its citizens to have opportunities for fulfilled lives. This means balance between environmental demands and economic needs. As the author puts it, “It was clear to Reagan that the economy, energy and foreign policy were inextricably linked.”

During his eight years as president, Reagan had three secretaries of the interior, James Watt, William Clark and Donald Hodel. All three worked to make as realities eight policy principles the author summarizes:

Restore good-neighbor relations with the states and the American people.

Preserve and protect parks, refuges and wild places for the people. (Reagan created more wilderness lands than any of his predecessors.)

Prevent radical laws from stopping projects, seizing land and stifling jobs.

Remove burdensome regulations, shrink the bureaucracy and control wasteful federal spending.

Provide for the availability of critical and strategic materials.

Ensure the use of America’s vast coal resources.

Explore the outer continental shelf’s energy resources.

Develop onshore oil and gas resources.

It fell to Mr. Watt, a former lawyer for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, to begin implementing Reagan’s policies. While extreme elements in the environmental movement saw Reagan as the real enemy, he was effectively untouchable, so they focused on Watt. Because Watt often said things bluntly and inartfully, they focused on this and egged on news media friends to make him the butt of jokes. After close to three years on the job, Watt retired. Reagan then appointed his good friend and trusted adviser William Clark, a former California Supreme Court justice. In his 16 months at Interior, Bill Clark continued all of Reagan’s environmental policies, but in the low-key approach that was his hallmark. In fact, when he retired in early 1985, he concluded a long memo to the president with these words: “The policies begun by Jim Watt are going well, and I hope to make them your quiet legacy.” Don Hodel, another quiet but effective manager, succeeded Clark for the rest of Reagan’s White House years.

William Perry Pendley is well-qualified to document the story of Reagan’s environmental philosophy and policies. He was a deputy undersecretary of the interior during those years. A native of Wyoming, lawyer by training and now living in Colorado, he has understood the American West since childhood

He also understands the goal of environmental extremists: gain control of policy in order to force Americans to reduce their standard of living by shrinking the nation’s economy. Their wedge of entry in the 1960s and 1970s was a series of seemingly benign laws to protect wildlife and the environment. Determined zealots have turned many of these into tools of social control. Mr. Pendley spells it out clearly and in detail.

Peter Hannaford was closely associated with President Reagan for a number of years, beginning in the governor’s office in California. His most recent book is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions, 2012).

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