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Uncommon Ground

Nixon’s Environmental Legacy

Clean Air Act

In 1974 President Richard Nixon resigned, stating that “the interest of the nation must come before any personal considerations” and acknowledging that some of his private actions were wrong. Those were strong words, but the president’s policies still have meaning today.

Nixon enacted Title IX, which says, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance …”

Title IX allowed women the same opportunities as men in high school and college sports. Luckily, many young women today have no idea the disadvantages women’s athletics faced in our lifetimes.

Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. Initially instituting the troop surge approach, he negotiated a peace treaty and brought our fine service people home. It was a courageous act of peace.

Ending the Vietnam War and enacting Title IX were big undertakings, but Nixon was also concerned about the economic impact of pollution on business and people.

He was responsible for sweeping environmental reform known as the Clean Air Act. This 1970 landmark law guarantees that people have the right to breathe clean air. The Clean Air Act mandated pollution scrubbers for coal plants to mitigate acid rain.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was also started under Nixon. The EPA works to assure that pesticides are kept out of food; that drinking water is clean; that people are not exposed to mercury; and sets fuel efficiency standards. Nixon followed that with the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act.

Recently, the EPA said that greenhouse gasses “threaten the public health and welfare of the American people.” People can judge the economic cost of climate change from unruly and chaotic weather that melts glaciers, causes flooding and closes airports.

Four decades ago, a retired Bigfork Republican legislator sponsored the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). It was based on Nixon’s National Environmental Policy Act.

MEPA requires that Montana state government coordinate plans, functions and resources to achieve environmental, economic and social goals. It is a “look before you leap” obligation, which assures that middle-class Montanans are not shortchanged during backroom deals, often prevalent in governing.

The resource extraction industry supports recent legislative attempts to rid Montana of MEPA. It tells us that MEPA is a job destroyer. It may be cheaper for industry to be liberated of MEPA, but it is good policy since the middle class is seldom seated at the negotiation table.

Locals live in the Flathead Valley because of the great quality of life, the crisp air, the clean water and the open public lands. Our heritage and economic livelihood correlate to our way of life. No local business owner wants to see coal mining in Glacier National Park or gas drilling in Whitefish’s aquifer. It’s simply bad for business.

Each year, 2 million tourists flock to the Flathead. And most local transplants started as tourists before planting roots here. Newcomers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy and locals want assurance that economic values remain environmentally sound.

MEPA provides basic checks and balances on proposed state actions; from selling public lands to siting power plants to altering fishing access.

Declaring “I am not a crook,” Nixon defended his record and then, facing impeachment, resigned. He died in 1994. He is credited with some of the nation’s most renowned environmental protections; led the United States out of war; opened dialogue with China and made sure that women were treated more equal.

Many of these same rights are embedded in the Montana Constitution today.

Forty years ago, Republicans like Nixon had vision to declare that the great outdoors remain clean, open to all, and that business coexist with the environment. As the Montana Legislature attempts to fulfill a promise to the middle class and grow the Flathead economy, it may well learn from our past.

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