american buffalo

Peter Dykstra: Forgotten history

Early laws that were either the first step in environmental protection or the last straw in Native American genocide.

Let’s start by throwing a little shade on two central myths of American environmental history: That Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon were the only Republican presidents to lift a finger on behalf of the environment.
As for lifting fingers, most—but not all—of the rest lifted the same finger against the environment. (Hint: It’s the same finger that we native New Jerseyans use during minor traffic disputes.)

McKinley’s laws

Republican president William McKinley, however, signed into law the predecessors of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The Rivers and Harbors Act was passed by Congress and signed by McKinley in 1899. The oldest pollution law in the U.S., a section of this law called the Refuse Act offers criminal penalties for dumping in waterways, and rewards for those who turn in dumpers. Mostly ignored until the 1960’s, the law was deployed in the fight to clean up the Hudson River before it was leveraged into the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act was passed by Congress in 1972, but Nixon did not sign it into law, as he did with the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more. Nixon vetoed the CWA as too expensive, and with bipartisanship not seen in recent years, Congress overrode the veto.

In 1900, McKinley signed the Lacey Act, one of the first sweeping wildlife protection laws. The Act limited the interstate and international trafficking in fish, birds, mammals, and plants. It’s still in effect and has been a source of somewhat recent headlines: in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the Lacey Act to bust Gibson Guitars for using illegally imported Madagascar rosewood.

Gibson denied the charges as Fox News and other conservative news outlets had a field day telling the latest tale of Big Government picking on a beloved American institution. A year later, Gibson quietly fessed up, paying a $300,000 settlement.

It’s also worth noting that while the arch-conservationist Teddy Roosevelt served as McKinley’s vice president, he was not yet VP when the Rivers and Harbors Act and the Lacey Act were signed into law.

Land-use laws as a tool of genocide

It’s been more than 200 years since the first land use law, which seemed designed to throw Native Americans off their land.

In 1820Congress passed the Land Act, dropping the price of an acre of unclaimed land by 40%. It is considered a crucial step in America’s westward expansion at a time when “the West” meant anything west of the Appalachian Mountains.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed and championed a more honestly named law, the Indian Removal Act, making it a federal policy to evict eastern Indian tribes, relocating them in mostly unexplored land west of the Mississippi.

In the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. Western pioneers were promised 160-acre tracts if they occupied the land for at least five years

Other laws helped open up the West to loggers. And last week I wrote about the 1872 Mining Law, still swindling after all these years,

The wholesale slaughter of bison that marked the conquest of the West had ended by 1880: there were no more bison left to kill. At least two prominent leaders, Civil War hero Gen. Phil Sheridan and Interior Secretary Columbus Delano, endorsed the slaughter as the best way to wipe out Plains Indian culture.

Many of the estimated 500 surviving bison were relocated to the new Yellowstone National Park. But no federal law protected the decimated herd until 1894, when a new law outlawed killing a buffalo. A conviction drew a $1,000 fine and possible prison time. Intensive public/private efforts have built the population back up to an estimated 300,000.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Yellowstone buffalo. (Credit: Tony Hisgett/flickr)

Ski resorts can now make fake snow in 80 degrees. Here's why that's a problem

Some worry the amount of energy needed to make the fake snow contributes to the very problem resorts are trying to confront.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

The EU should welcome a green subsidy race

To IRA or not to IRA? That is the question for EU leaders as they try to agree on how to respond to the Inflation Reduction Act, Washington’s belated but punchy commitment to subsidise the green transition.

Biden climate law spurred billions in clean energy investment. Has it been a success?

When President Joe Biden signed the $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act in August, supporters hailed the measure as the largest climate investment in the nation's history -- but questions remained about what the spending would ultimately achieve.

How supermarket freezers are heating the planet, and how they could change

Climate-conscious shoppers may buy local food and try to cut packaging waste, but those efforts could be negated by potent greenhouse gases leaking from supermarket fridges.

Ron Wallace: Ottawa's electric vehicle drive could hit the ditch

Led by a maintained minority government, Canada is hurtling toward sweeping changes in energy and industrial policies with material social, economic and political consequences.

A sad, historic day for New Yorkers who love snow

As of Sunday, New York has broken the record for the latest first snowfall for a winter in the city’s record-keeping history, which stretches back to the era of President Ulysses S. Grant.

California activists redouble efforts to hold the oil industry accountable on neighborhood drilling

Community groups are still rallying their troops, and the public, to resist oil companies’ push to overturn historic safeguards that were years in the making.

From our Newsroom
oil and gas wells pollution

What happens if the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the US goes bankrupt?

Diversified Energy’s liabilities exceed its assets, according to a new report, sparking concerns about whether taxpayers will wind up paying to plug its 70,000 wells.

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich: A journey through science and politics

In his new book, the famous scientist reflects on an unparalleled career on our fascinating, ever-changing planet.

oil and gas california environmental justice

Will California’s new oil and gas laws protect people from toxic pollution?

California will soon have the largest oil drilling setbacks in the U.S. Experts say other states can learn from this move.

popular stories 2022

Our 5 most popular reads from 2022

A corpse, woodworking dangers, plastic titans ... revisit the stories that stuck with our readers this past year.

Pittsburgh environmental

What I learned reporting on environmental health in Pittsburgh in 2022

For a lot of people, 2022 felt like the first “normal” year since 2020. It didn’t for me.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.