6 Good Things Richard Nixon Did for the Environment

Richard Nixon celebrating with supporters of his

 Bettmann / Contributor

When most people think of President Richard Nixon, the term "environmentalist" isn't the word that immediately leaps to mind. The 37th president, who resigned from office in 1973 after the Watergate scandal, left a surprisingly strong environmental legacy, giving our nation new legislation governing protection of the air, water and wilderness.

His motives may have been purely political (he once said environmentalists wanted to live like "a bunch of damned animals"), but his administration did a lot of good for nature. Here are six great things Richard Nixon did for the environment.

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National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

Gene Daniels/EPA.

This was one of the first laws that established the legislative framework for protecting the environment and accomplished three important goals:

• It outlined, for the first time, a formal declaration of national environmental policies and goals.

• It required federal agencies to prepare and submit environmental impact statements for most federally funded programs.

• It created the Presidential Council on Environment within the executive office.

President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 on Jan. 1, 1970.

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Created the EPA in 1970

Leroy Woodson/EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in December 1970 after President Nixon submitted a plan to Congress calling for the creation of the agency. Before the EPA was created, our nation had no central authority overseeing the protection of the environment. The EPA writes and enforces rules governing the environment and is currently led by Administrator Lisa Jackson.

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Clean Air Act Extension of 1970

Gene Daniels/EPA.

The Clean Air Act Extension, written by Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie and signed into law by President Nixon on Dec. 31, 1970, was arguably the most significant air pollution control bill in American history. It required the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency to create and enforce regulations to protect people from airborne pollution known to be hazardous—specifically targeting sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and lead.

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Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

Photo: By rbrown10/Shutterstock

This act was another bill of firsts—it was the first to protect marine mammals such as dolphins, whales, seals, walruses, manatees, sea otters and polar bears. In addition:

• It granted governmental authority to reduce marine mammal casualties.

• It created guidelines for the public display of captured marine mammals, specifically protecting dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean from injury and death from fisherman.

• It regulated the import and export of marine mammals.

• It established a system to allow native subsistence Alaskan hunters to kill whales and other marine mammals.

President Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act on Oct. 21, 1972. A few days later, Nixon adding his signature to the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. The act, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, regulates the dumping of anything into the ocean that would cause harm to humans or the marine environment.

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Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974


The Safe Drinking Water Act—which was proposed by Nixon and passed by Congress in 1974 but actually signed by President Gerald Ford—was a turning pointing in the effort to protect the nation's lakes, streams, rivers, wetlands, and other bodies of water. The law requires actions to protect drinking water and its sources, including reservoirs, springs, and groundwater wells.

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Endangered Species Act of 1973

IUCN, Tim Laman/AP.

President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act on Dec. 28, 1973. It was created to protect species in danger of extinction as a result of human activity. President Nixon asked Congress to strengthen existing conservation laws, and they responded by writing a law that grants government agencies broad powers to save and protect species slipping down the slope to extinction. The act created the endangered species list and has been called "the Magna Carta of the environmental movement" by historian Kevin Starr.