9 U.S. Presidents with the Worst Environmental Records

Leaving a Legacy of Pollution and Destruction


president william mckinley
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9. The Imperialist

The highest office holder in the U.S. has a great deal of power to shape policy and national discussion, and some presidents have used that influence to promote environmental protection and good stewardship of natural resources (especially these 10). Others have not made the environment much of a priority, while a few have rolled back protections and allowed captains of industry to pollute and plunder at will.

Here is our subjective list of those American presidents whom we feel have left the dirtiest, most destructive legacy.

In last place is William McKinley (1897-1901), who probably isn't thought of often by contemporary Americans for any reason, though he certainly left his mark. The Ohio native fought the Spanish-American War and worked to expand America's influence around the world.

McKinley annexed Hawaii and worked to "Americanize" the islands. The president would also annex the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, and set up a protectorate over Cuba. Resource extraction and development followed, as did cultural and political dominance. McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist.

president richard nixon
Hartmann/White House/Wikimedia Commons
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8. The Inconsistent Leader

Yes, Richard Nixon (1969-1974) also appears on our list of the 10 greenest U.S. presidents. As we noted, many of the nation's landmark environmental laws were signed by the Republican, largely due to intense public pressure.

However, Nixon also unleashed the biggest bombing campaign the world had ever known on Southeast Asia, and approved use of agent orange and napalm, which were ecological nightmares, as well as weapons of war.

At home, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, put the country on track for a corn-syrup based diet that has led to record levels of obesity, as well as millions of acres of destructive industrial agriculture. As the documentary King Corn pointed out, Butz's mantra to farmers was "get big or get out." He urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn "from fencerow to fencerow," encouraging the rise of big agribusiness over small family farms.

Butz was eventually ousted for telling offensive racist jokes, and later in life he pled guilty to tax evasion.

portrait of president andrew jackson
Painting by Thomas Sully/Wikimedia Commons
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7. The Brazen Warrior and Expansionist

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was a strong and polarizing figure who led the country through many changes. His "Jacksonian Democracy" included the enviable values of more power (and suffrage) for the common [white] man. But it also called for a bureaucracy filled by the patronage system, a strong executive at the expense of Congress, little government regulation of business and aggressive geographical expansion.

Jackson spent years as a military leader ruthlessly fighting Native Americans across much of the continent, and his policies as president included forced migration of native peoples westward, to make room for development and white landowners. Most of the Native Americans received a very raw deal as a result, and thousands died outright from the disruption, which some have labeled a genocide.

Old Hickory and his contemporaries believed Europeans were destined to rule North America from sea to sea, largely as their own dominion, with native peoples and nature supposed to bend to their will.

president herbert hoover
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6. Blamed for Lots O' Bad

Before becoming president, Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) was a mining engineer and author, promoting the so-called Efficiency Movement, which argued that there must be a technical solution for every social and economic problem. Most would consider that philosophy naive and outdated today -- and possibly outright destructive -- so it's perhaps not surprising that Hoover's long career in public service is mixed when it comes to the environment.

Through his terms as president and Commerce Secretary for Harding and Coolidge, Hoover eliminated waste and increased efficiency in the public and private sectors, which is decidedly green. He worked to decrease injuries and accidents, even reducing the amount of oil spilled during extraction and shipping. Hoover also canceled private oil leases on government lands, and as president he appointed a commission that set aside 3 million acres of national parks and 2.3 million acres of national forests.

In the name of progress, Hoover promoted massive dam projects (think of the famous one that bears his name) and flood control schemes, which forever altered the shape of the country and devastated river ecosystems. His "Own Your Own Home" campaign was a major factor in setting the country on a path to Sprawl Town U.S.A., though it sounded great at the time.

Although historians now feel much of the blame was unfair, Hoover is best known as a scapegoat for the Great Depression. Still, it is clear that his policies didn't help matters, and the ecological disaster that was the Dust Bowl crept up under his watch. Hoover was dedicated to the ideals of humanitarianism and public service, and it may not be fair to hold him up to the harshness of hindsight -- although that's what we in the press are good at.

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5. Scandalous Exploitation of Natural Resources

Former newspaper publisher Warren Harding (1921-1923) is often labeled as one of the country's worst presidents, despite having won the office by the largest landslide, and having enjoyed enormous popularity while serving. Today, the Ohio conservative is most often remembered for the corruption that was rampant in his administration.

The most infamous was the complicated Teapot Dome scandal, in which Harding's Secretary of the Interior was convicted of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. Other officials were also convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks, two committed suicide, and another was found running an illegal network for drugs and alcohol.

The scheme to plunder the Earth for personal gain is perhaps indicative of an administration that seemed to view nature largely as something to be tamed and taken from.

4. Promoter of Sprawl and the Cult of the Car

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) was a tremendously popular war hero and U.S. president. He supported civil rights (though not as much as some would have liked) and strengthened social programs. He also expanded U.S. military and political influence around the world and fought the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which included stockpiling of dangerous nuclear weapons and heavy investment in the military-industrial-complex, a term that Eisenhower himself coined in his farewell speech.

One of Ike's major projects was creation of a vast interstate highway system, something he saw as integral to the nation's defense and as a spur to modernization and development. Unfortunately, more efficient, cleaner mass transit took a far back seat, and that set us up for addiction to a car-based culture, with all the oil use and sprawl that has resulted in subsequent decades.

In the post-war era we had a chance for smart growth, but it got handed over to increasingly powerful car, road and oil lobbies.

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3. Well Meaning But Hoodwinked by Industry

Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) is well respected for his support for civil rights but condemned for the rampant corruption in his administration, as well as for his perceived ineffectiveness as a political leader. Grant's record on the environment is decidedly mixed.

In 1872 the former general signed legislation designating Yellowstone as America's first national park. However, that same year also saw passage of the infamous 1872 Mining Law, which paved the way for large-scale, destructive extraction on public lands, with very little remuneration flowing back to taxpayers. Environmentalists have fought an uphill battle ever since to regulate the dirty industry.

In a more philosophical sense, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has pointed out that prior to Grant's presidency, the law in the United States had been that if a factory released a contaminant that affected a neighbor's property, the public had the right to enjoin to close down the facility. However, during Grant's presidency (when industry was expanding rapidly), the pendulum began to swing far in the other direction. The public began to lose a great deal of control over polluters, as well as corporations.

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2. Maverick Gone Bad

Although it has been pointed out that Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) had been pretty solid on the environment as governor of California, he seemed to take a turn for the worse once he got to the White House. "The Reagan administration adopted an extraordinarily aggressive policy of issuing leases for oil, gas and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national lands -- more than any other administration in history, including the current one," the Wilderness Society's David Alberswerth has reported.

Perhaps setting the tone for much of his policy, Reagan famously (and bizarrely) said "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do," and that if "you've seen one tree you've seen them all." As president Reagan shocked greens by hiring the notorious James Watt and Anne Gorsuch for the heads of the Department of Interior and the EPA. The industry-friendly appointees worked tirelessly to roll back environmental regulations, from the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act. In the administration's first year, there was a 79 percent decline in the number of enforcement cases filed from regional offices to EPA headquarters, and a 69 percent decline in the number of cases filed from the EPA to the Department of Justice.

Reagan's Superfund director, Rita Lavelle, was sent to jail after a Congressional investigation into alleged corruption (called "Sewergate"). Lavelle returned to prison in 2005 after being accused of fraud in a case of faked environmental cleanup in the private sector.

Reagan also rolled back Carter's CAFE standards for car gas mileage, slashed funding for renewable energy (sending the burgeoning industry into a freefall it still hasn't recovered from), signed an executive order that forces unworkable evacuation plans on communities surrounding nuclear power plants, and unceremoniously ripped the solar panels off the White House. Reagan may have been a nice man, but he drove us right back into oil addiction, some say setting the stage for years of global conflict and indirect funding of terrorism.

Eric Draper/White House/Wikimedia Commons
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1. "Worst Environmental President in History"

A highly polarizing figure, President George W. Bush has been widely criticized for his dismal record on the environment. In fact, leading advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has said, "You simply can't talk honestly about the environment today without criticizing this president. George W. Bush will go down as the worst environmental president in our nation's history."

Kennedy's book Crimes Against Nature details how Bush has rewritten the nation's environmental laws in favor of industry and filled the ranks of regulatory agencies with former lobbyists and corporate executives.

Bush rolled back laws (and stymied enforcement) on air pollution and standards for arsenic in drinking water. He pushed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other federal lands to destructive drilling, promoted mountaintop removal coal mining, stepped up logging on public lands, slashed support for family planning around the world, fought against fuel economy and other efficiency standards and deliberately dragged his heels on the issue of climate change. The Bush administration has been accused of politicizing and distorting government science, particularly when it comes to global warming, and even floated a plan for corporate sponsorship of landmarks (sometimes referred to as the "Pepsi Grand Canyon" fiasco).

George W. Bush is well known for his deep ties to the oil industry, and under his leadership oil companies have enjoyed the highest profits in the history of the world, while consumers suffer sticker shock at the pump, not to mention a flagging economy and an unpopular war.