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Nixon in the Wilderness

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The late Richard Nixon's only public tribute of any note outside of his presidential library in Yorba Linda, California is oddly enough an environmental one.

It is odd because the disgraced president was hardly a committed environmentalist, despite his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. You would think that if Nixon would be honored for anything, it would be for foreign policy in which he excelled, particularly in relation to China.

Nevertheless, the tribute in question is the Richard M. Nixon County Park and Nature Center in York County, Pennsylvania. The Park consists of 187 heavily wooded acres and includes an extensive environmental library, hands-on nature exhibits, ecology classes for youngsters, six miles of hiking trails and a lake where fishing is allowed. Adorning the wall of the nature center are two large portraits of Nixon to remind visitors of the facility's pedigree.

How did Nixon manage to snag the honor when the rest of the county wanted no part of him? A wealthy Pennsylvania businessman, Bob Hoffman, was a great admirer of Nixon, and in 1968, agreed to donate the property to the York County Park System with the condition it would be named after he 37th president. (Nixon's family originally came from the area).

Nixon actually visited the Center in 1988 and was understandably moved, considering public tributes to him were few and far between.

Still, to have Nixon's memory celebrated by a wilderness-oriented park and nature center is jarring, and not just because of his dishonorable place in American history. True, he did begin his presidency on a high note with the establishment of the EPA and the President' Council on Environmental Quality. Unfortunately, it was more out of shrewd calculation then ecological dedication. During his first term, the polls indicated strong public support for the environment, whereupon Nixon ordered his administration to respond accordingly. Yet it soon became apparent that Nixon's commitment to environmental reform was "a mile wide and an inch deep", and not just because he chose to turn up the White House air conditioning in the summer so he could burn some logs in the fireplace.

Facing impeachment, Nixon quickly backtracked on a broad range of environmental legislation opposed by Republican House members he hoped to placate before they voted on his future.

That being said, for the residents of York County and the curiosity seekers visiting the Center from beyond state borders, the proverbial adage "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" applies. In this day and age of rapid urbanization, one must take the opportunity whenever one can to gain an appreciation of nature and the importance of preserving it for posterity.

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