William McKinley President Monument

Reading from the Book of Genesis of environmental law

I've been writing about the environment for years, but here are three presidents I don't think I've ever mentioned: James Monroe, Chester Alan Arthur, and William McKinley.


Each signed versions of a law that morphed—by McKinley's time—into a cornerstone environmental law.

In 1824, Monroe signed the first of more than a dozen laws called the Rivers and Harbors Act.

This is the time in history when the possibly-mythical Johnny Appleseed was planting trees throughout "the West" (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana) at a time when said trees went largely un-hugged.

For the rest of the 19th Century revisions of the Act focused on clearing navigable streams and ports for commercial ships and barges. No laws directly addressed increasing filth—sewage, trash, industrial waste—that a growing America placed in its waterways.

Renewed and bolstered every few years, the Act saw a thorough upgrade during Arthur's three years as president. But it didn't get around to actually protecting rivers and harbors till an 1899 update.

Also called the Refuse Act, it was the first time that dumping waste into waterways carried a criminal penalty.

Violators faced a maximum $2,500 fine or one year's imprisonment. With the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency still some 71 years away, the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with enforcing the law and issuing permits to those who really, really needed to dump into waterways.

Sewage treatment was still virtually unheard of. The first American chemical treatment plants opened in Worcester, Massachusetts, and East Orange, New Jersey, around 1890, according to www.sewerhistory.org, the gold standard in poop news.

Storm and sanitary sewage ran virtually unabated into waterways for many more years. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948) pulled together more serious enforcement. It was remade as the Clean Water Act in 1972. Richard Nixon vetoed the ambitious bill as too expensive, but bipartisan environmental sentiment resulted in an override.

The Act has never realized its optimum goal of "fishable, swimmable" waterways from coast to coast, but it's regarded as a roaring success in otherwise living up to its name.

Important precursors

National Monuments Glen Canyon

The Antiquities Act has been a presidential tool in protecting National Monuments. (Credit: anokarina/flickr)

John Lacey was an Iowa Congressman who pre-dated Teddy Roosevelt as a Republican conservationist.

He was instrumental in passing the Forest Reserve Act in 1891, creating the precursors to U.S. National Forests. Concern over some of America's most colorful birds vanishing led to the Lacey Act of 1900. The law restricted international trade in species, and is credited with reversing the trend of converting bright plumage into the trendy women's hats of the day. It's also a precursor to the Endangered Species Act.

In 1906, Lacey championed the Antiquities Act. Originally intended to preserve Native American sites in the Southwest from tourists and artifact hunters, presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Obama have used the Act to create sizable National Monuments, like Bears Ears, a sprawling Utah site designated by President Obama but reduced in size by President Trump.

Air pollution was left largely to state and local governments until 1955, when President Eisenhower signed the Air Pollution Control Act. Major re-writes evolved and strengthened the law in 1965 and 1991.

Let's bring in a fourth 1800's president and two laws he signed in 1872. Ulysses S. Grant gave us the statute now known as the 1872 Mining Law, which allows leasing of some public lands for mining for as little as $5 an acre.

Little has changed in a century-and-a-half, and hard-rock miners can claim an acre of federal land for the price of a bag of Doritos. And the U.S. is a permissive landlord, imposing minimal requirements for companies to clean up their messes.

Environmentalists, backed by some budget hawks, have tried for years to get Congress to modernize or rescind the law, with no success.

Sailor mongering 

In 2002, Greenpeace activists boarded a freighter laden with rainforest mahogany. The U.S. Attorney's office used a 19th Century law to prosecute the Greenpeacers, charging them with sailor mongeringunder a law last enforced in 1890. The law was designed to prevent unscrupulous mariners from coaxing landlubbers with women of ill repute and demon rum, then kidnapping them to crew on ocean voyages. A judge dismissed the charges in 2004.

Of course, the laws covering clean air and water, and those protecting species and sensitive lands are all under assault by the Trump Administration, and by the government departments and agencies that were intended to support them.

For all the gains and recent losses in environmental law, these issues have never truly gained a foothold as a major issue in presidential politics.

As Donald Trump tends to say when questioned on just about anything..."We'll see."

Banner photo: William McKinley Monument (Credit: THX0477/flickr)

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences. Contact him at pdykstra@ehn.org or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.

Several very old laws are the forebears of 21st Century practice...for better or worse.

Africa must forgo gas exploration to avert climate disaster, warn experts

Africa must embrace renewable energy, and forgo exploration of its potentially lucrative gas deposits to stave off climate disaster and bring access to clean energy to the hundreds of millions who lack it, leading experts on the continent have said.

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.

Feeding cows seaweed reduces their methane emissions, but california farms are a long way from scaling up the practice

The California Air Resources Board believes feed additives could play a role in helping the state reach its ambitious goal of a 40 percent reduction of 2013 greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Marjorie Taylor Greene suggests global warming 'is actually healthy for us'

While speaking on the conservative Right Side Broadcasting Network, alongside host Brian Glenn, Marjorie Taylor Greene argued in favor of global warming.

Activists bring climate clock to Pennsylvania capitol to urge lawmaker action

About two dozen people on Monday chanted “Act in time!” as organizers uncovered a six-foot long clock counting down to the year 2030. Unveiling the clock was the final piece of a three-day event called the Pennsylvania Climate Convergence.

Bringing the farm to the people

Siene Allen in Kodiak Island, Alaska and Zeina Salama in El Beheira, Egypt grow food in very different climates. Yet step into the perfectly controlled environment of either farm, and their crops could be sitting directly next to each other.

California's sequoia trees struggle to survive climate change, severe wildfires

Ancient sequoia trees, which have been decimated by severe wildfires around California’s Sierra Nevada, are struggling to keep up with ever worsening conditions. And this summer, they could face their worst fate yet.

Hunger in Somalia

The drought in the country has a lesson: We know how to ease human suffering. We need to do it.
From our Newsroom
Colorado fracking

Colorado is the first state to ban PFAS in oil and gas extraction

The toxic “forever chemicals” are used in fracking wells across the country.

gun control

Peter Dykstra: Gun and climate change delusions

Millions here suffer from twin hallucinations: Guns don’t cause our mass shootings, and the climate isn’t changing.

Op-ed: An engine for social justice leads the way to change

Engine for social justice leads to change

Virginia Organizing's 27-year history as a role model for The Daily Climate

Using comedy to combat climate change

Using comedy to combat climate change

The Climate Comedy Cohort aims to help comedians infuse climate activism into their creative work.

roe v. wade

Derrick Z. Jackson: Roe v. Wade draft bodes ill for air, wetlands and the EPA

Justice Alito’s longstanding consistency in wanting to restrict EPA authority makes it transparent where he wants the court to go.

solar power schools

Solar power at Pennsylvania schools doubled during the pandemic

“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for.”

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