02/10/2011 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reagan's Birthday Caveat

The recent Centennial Celebration to commemorate the late President Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday triggered an avalanche of accolades. But from an environmental perspective, his eight years in the White House were pretty much a disaster.

In staffing his environmentally-oriented federal agencies, Reagan was driven by his rigid pro-business, anti-big government ideology. It led him to choose department heads dedicated to weakening or rolling back altogether regulatory safeguards that they were supposedly entrusted to enforce. The safeguards, one might add, were designed to protect our health, air, water and pristine public lands. Enforcement was largely a token gesture at best, with this skullduggery being done at the implicit, if not explicit, behest of Ronald Reagan.

Morale plummeted in the federal agencies, with many talented employees leaving out of despair at Reagan's disdain for regulation as well as his policy of letting industry police itself. Reagan's widely scorned Interior Secretary, Jim Watt, carried the Administration's ideologically driven pro-business bias to an extreme by selling off prized undeveloped public land to private interests at bargain basement prices. For good measure and in keeping with his employer's philosophy, Watt permitted commercial interests to exploit (and despoil) previously off-limits publicly owned wilderness.

More than 20 high ranking officials at Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to resign because of improprieties, usually stemming from an inordinately cozy relationship with the corporate interests they were supposed to regulate.

The general public's outrage and the Democratic-controlled Congress's backlash at such environmental shenanigans ultimately forced the ouster of Watt and the just-as-despised EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch. An unrepentant Reagan accepted their resignations "with regret". His affable demeanor seemed to insulate him from the unpopularity of his subordinates except in the eyes of his staunchest critics. It was a trait that earned Reagan the nickname of "the Teflon president".

Gorsuch's and Watt's forced departure midway through Reagan's first term did not halt the nation's downward environmental spiral. Although the reviled duo was replaced with less confrontational individuals, lackluster enforcement of environmental regulations persisted. Unflinching in his adamant pro-business orientation, Reagan closed out his eight years in office having opposed universal warning labels on toxic substances, dragging his feet on strengthening acid rain controls and lowering fuel economy standards, and grievously underfunding existing programs to protect endangered species and acquire sorely needed national park additions.

Especially beholden to the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries, Reagan turned his back on funding research and development of renewable energy sources, thereby losing the technological lead the U.S. has yet to regain from Germany, Japan, and recently, China.

Our nation did make up some lost environmental ground during the subsequent Administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The EPA began to rebuild its ranks, but then George W. Bush entered the national scene. He followed studiously in Reagan's footsteps, and in some respects did him one better in elevating commerce above public health. President Obama started to change all that. Now, however, the newly-elected Republican majority in the House is reviving with a vengeance "environmental Reaganism", discredited as it may be.

Edward Flattau's fourth book Green Morality is now available.