If conservationist Russell Train had been a Democrat, party leaders would have fallen all over each other to laud him when he died at 92 last week. But he wasn’t, and they didn’t. Too bad.
Having served Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as he fashioned a conservation legacy, you’d think the Republican Party would have embraced him as an icon. But his party has strayed so far from its conservation roots it ignored his death. Worse, they’re busy these days trying to undo much of what he accomplished. What a shame.
It’s pretty hard to call for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency — as some Republicans have done — and salute a man who helped create it. For his part, Train said many times he favored raising the EPA to Cabinet status, to put the environment on equal footing with other interest areas.
Environmental issues were in the forefront when Train was in the midst of a remarkable run that solidified his place in history. As Keith Schneider wrote in The New York Times last week, “From 1969 to 1977, as Richard M. Nixon’s first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and then as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Gerald R. Ford, Mr. Train was among a select group of senior administration officials and congressional leaders who shaped the world’s first comprehensive program for scrubbing the skies and waters of pollution, ensuring the survival of ecologically significant plants and animals, and safeguarding citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals.”
Catalytic converters to cut auto emissions? Train gave them the go-ahead at EPA. Scrubbers to eliminate air pollution from stacks? A Train accomplishment. Industry was telling him just to allow taller smoke stacks. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, considered a cornerstone of modern federal environmental legislation? Train was considered the father of NEPA. Regulation of toxic substances? Came under his watch. The Safe Drinking Water Act? Same.
The Nixon years produced some of the most impressive environmental accomplishments in this country’s history. Of course, Democratic majorities in Congress and environmental leaders like Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had huge roles. Still, politicians in those days were able to put partisanship aside and accomplish things for the greater good. How quaint that seems today.
Train wasn’t alone in Republican ranks of stellar conservationists of that time. Russell Peterson, who was born of humble roots in Portage, is in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. As the Republican governor of Delaware, Peterson pushed for the most comprehensive coastal protection policy in the country. Peterson, too, chaired the CEQ, working to make sure NEPA was implemented. He went on to serve as president of the National Audubon Society and oversaw efforts to expand the organization’s reach and capabilities. Later in life, Peterson left the Republican Party because he no longer fit under its shrinking tent.
Here in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Warren Knowles is also in the Conservation Hall of Fame, as are other Republicans who worked for a better environment.
Memories are short, and times have changed. The environmental accomplishments of people like Russell Train are gifts to the nation that have paid for themselves many times. Unfortunately, the party he served hasn’t produced the likes of him in a long time, and the Democrats, frankly, haven’t been a whole lot better.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. email@example.com