TR Greenest POTUS, But No. 2 Might Surprise You

Once upon a time, “green” wasn’t a dirty word to Republicans. And if you don’t believe that, consider that a survey of environmental groups has put Republicans in the top two spots in a list of “U.S. Green Presidents.”

Teddy Roosevelt grabbed the top spot in the survey, conducted by the magazine Corporate Knights, and that’s no big surprise. True, Roosevelt thought nature was a gift from God to be used by humans, but this belief and his enormous love for the outdoors motivated him – during his presidency and while out of office — to push for environmental protections that would keep resources from being lost to future generations.

Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite (image via Library of Congress)

It’s the No. 2 finisher that might shock some people: Richard Nixon.

The amount of environmental progress that took place during Nixon’s years in the White House is staggering. Perhaps nothing had farther-reaching impact than the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Nixon also banned DDT and catalytic converters, signed the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and a long list of other measures – passed by a Democratic Congress, it should be noted – that gave the federal government big new tools to enforce environmental standards. One of the few blights on Nixon’s record is his veto of the Clean Water Act – but Congress overrode that veto.

According to Nixon’s first EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus, Nixon wasn’t motivated by a concern for the environment. “He wasn’t [even] curious about it,” Ruckelshaus said in a Crosscut interview last year. But Nixon realized environmental protection was good politics, especially in his first term, when reelection was a concern.

While Roosevelt was the clear winner in this survey – eight of the 12 voters put him No. 1 on their list – Nixon narrowly edged out Jimmy Carter for second. As David Roberts notes in the Corporate Knights article that accompanies the rankings, Carter was something of the opposite of Nixon: “cared a great deal, had grand ideas and ambitious proposals, but his intentions were often blunted by circumstances and poor execution.”

In the voting, the 12 environmental groups were asked to each rank their top three green presidents. While they were free to choose from among all the presidents, the selections were tightly focused, with just eight presidents receiving votes. Here’s the full list, with the presidents given three points for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one point for a third-place vote:

  1. Teddy Roosevelt (R),  28 points
  2. Richard Nixon (R), 15
  3. Jimmy Carter (D), 13
  4. Barack Obama (D), 7
  5. Thomas Jefferson (D-R), 3
  6. Gerald Ford (R), 2
  7. Franklin Roosevelt (D), 2
  8. Bill Clinton, (D) 1

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.