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Reagan’s Free-Market Environmentalism


Nearly a quarter century after he left the White House, President Ronald Reagan’s legacy still looms large in many areas. His successful effort to win the Cold War brought democracy to millions; his tax cuts established Republicans as the low-tax party; and his principled support for protecting human life cemented the relationship between social and economic conservatives.

Much of his legacy remains controversial, for reasons both good (pro-choice advocates make many profound points) and bad (there’s no evidence that the Soviet Union would have collapsed without Reagan). But one part of Reagan’s legacy—his environmental record—should be something on which both liberals and conservatives can agree.

Let’s start with the facts: By measures environmental groups typically use, Reagan’s environmental record should be considered a success. Under Reagan’s leadership, new lead production essentially ceased; particulate air pollution fell by 40 percent; a record 10 million acres of land received wilderness designation, the highest level of protection available; and the United States pushed for, and signed, a major agreement to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons, greenhouse gases that were driving the then-pressing problem of ozone depletion.

Ronald Reagan and Nancy at Reagan Ranch in Malibu, site of the proposed Reagan Equestrian Campground. (Photo to California Parks Courtesy of Reagan Family-1958)

But Reagan’s environmental policies also provided limited-government conservatives with a lot to admire. Most importantly, he signed the 1985 Farm Bill that farmers who receive taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance accountable for their actions. While it didn’t restrict farmers from making their own decisions about how best to cultivate their own land, the law forbade them from using taxpayer money to drain wetlands and required those receiving subsidies to develop plans to avoid soil erosion. With taxpayers picking up so much of farmers’ insurance and disaster recovery costs, the absence of these rules provided tremendous incentives for farmers to do environmental harm.  Once these “conservation compliance” requirements were put in place, billions of tons of soil and millions of acres in wetlands were protected at no cost to taxpayers.  Short of eliminating crop insurance subsidies altogether (a good idea, but politically impractical), this was about the best outcome possible.

Just as importantly, Reagan signed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in 1982, eliminating nearly all federal subsidies for development on barrier islands and barrier beaches along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. (Some areas on the Great Lakes were later added.) Because these areas, which serve as critical wildlife habitat, are essentially giant sand bars that will wash away in time, private developers rarely would build without special guarantees. Federal programs supporting roads, housing construction and, most importantly, flood insurance, change the equation. By withdrawing subsidies, Reagan helped protect an area larger than all but one national park in the lower 48 states, while simultaneously saving more than $1 billion for taxpayers.

The principle of accountability these laws established also popped up in other areas. One policy the Reagan administration fought for—with vociferous opposition from some business interests—imposed a user fee on federally run inland waterways, locks, and dams, in the form of a tax on gas sold at marine terminals. These facilities had previously been paid for almost entirely out of general revenues, which gave every water-shipper an incentive to support wasteful, often destructive taxpayer-funded lock and dam projects. While it didn’t fully rationalize the way these things are funded, the user fee made a difference.

Even when Reagan did things that pleased environmentalists—the anti-CFC Montreal Protocol most prominently—he put a peculiarly conservative stamp on them. Although negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, the eventual agreement reached to phase out CFCs relied on markets, technology and gradualism (rather than heavy-handed mandates) to confront a real environmental problem.

Even some of the things Reagan did that displeased environmental groups were probably good for conservation, on balance. For example, the Reagan administration created only one new national park, but it invested billions in improving recreational facilities, access, hunting and fishing opportunities at existing parks. This didn’t please people who wanted to lock up as much land as possible under government control, but it did expand Americans’ opportunity to enjoy nature.

In recent years, politicians from both parties have done things to chip away at Reagan’s legacy of using the free market to promote conservation. While the conservation compliance program has been defended by the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, and members of Congress from both parties, farm state representatives from both parties repeatedly have tried to strip it from subsequent pork-filled farm bills, including the one that just passed the Senate will be considered soon in the House. The user fee for inland waterways, likewise, hasn’t kept place with inflation and plenty of foolish, worthless projects continue. Even the CBRA—which almost nobody opposes in public—has come under fire in specific areas from subsidy-hungry developers.  Moreover, many modern conservatives assume, wrongly, that there’s no sensible free-market solution to deal with the atmospheric pollution problem de jure of carbon pollution, when Ronald Reagan himself has already provided some pointers.

It’s worth noting that Reagan’s environmental record has some real blemishes. A few of the people he appointed—most prominently, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne Gorsuch—were simply bad managers.  The bargain-basement prices for some leases to mine on public land are equally difficult to justify by any standard. Extreme libertarians who favor the outright repeal of major environmental laws were also disappointed by a man who called pollution a “destructive trespass” and believed that property rights should include a right to avoid pollution.

Still, Reagan’s environmental record has a lot to recommend it. In fiscally tight times, he managed to do a tremendous amount for conservation without spending a lot of money. Elected by people concerned, rightly, about government’s intrusion on their private property rights, he figured out ways to preserve nature while still leaving most land use decisions in the hands of private owners and local government officials.

Remembering Regan’s legacy requires preserving it by keeping some of his particular policies in place (like crop insurance accountability) and using other smart, conservative solutions (like the Montreal Protocol) as potential templates for action on similar problems. Ronald Reagan left a great legacy to the nation he served. Those who wish to remember it ought to celebrate his real achievements as a conservationist.

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