Richard Nixon, Where Have You Gone?

Richard Nixon on Clean air

In this weird political season we have Republican presidential candidates arguing that Climate Change doesn’t exist. They seek to roll back environmental regulations put in place over nearly 50 years. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact it was a Republican, Richard Nixon, who championed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and pumped billions into a nationwide clean water program. Such vision led to a dramatic reduction in air and water pollution in our country.

Politics isn’t stationary and is constantly evolving or (devolving). In a convoluted way it offers a measure of hope that the reactionary, head in the sand mentality of many Republican leaders, may one day turn around. Perhaps a thumping over a few election cycles will get their attention. Let us remember that conservative values include conserving the health of the environment for generations to come.

This past week I paddled with my cousin Tom on the Blackstone River.

photo Tom and Kent

The river’s headwaters are in Worcester, MA and flows 48 miles to Providence, R.I. Its watershed drains 540 square miles. The Blackstone powered the industrial revolution and on its banks the first cotton mill was built in the 1770’s. Over the next 200 years thousands of factories poured millions of tons of toxins into it. The river was seen as a sewer flushing toxins and killing everything in its wake. As recently as 1990 it was considered the most polluted river in the USA related to toxins in the silt.

Fast forward nearly 50 years since Richard Nixon’s landmark legislation and you have what was an essentially dead river come back to life. The Blackstone is now home to 39 species of fish and soon slated to be safe to swim in. Along its banks is the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor (championed by another Republican, Senator John Chaffee). Thousands now bike, jog, picnic, fish and canoe along this once hard used river. Paddling with Tom up the Blackstone I thought of how resilient a river is when people of good will come together for the common good.

President Nixon’s presidency obviously had its dark side (secret war in Cambodia, Watergate etc. ). Yet, in this political season, I want to offer a belated thank you to Richard Nixon for his vision for the sake of the earth. The air we breathe and the water we drink and paddle on, is so much better because he recognized that ‘clean air, water, open spaces is our birthright’. Politicians of all persuasions, take note.

Smokey Bear Land

I grew up at the edge of a wetlands in suburban Rhode Island. This 100 acre wetlands became the playground for neighborhood children released from the prying eyes of parents. In that swamp the opportunities for entertainment were endless. In the summer we would catch frogs and turtles. In the winter we would skate on a pond and roast hot dogs over a fire.

All the kids knew this special place as ‘Smokey Bear Land’. There was no official designation, simply a name passed on by the children. It was a place to watch the wonders of nature unfold. I vividly remember coming across a family of Ruffed Grouse and running home as the mother grouse chased me from her brood. Another time my cousin and I found the dead body of a red fox and over the course of months we returned to watch the carcass decompose so that we could retrieve the bones and skull for a science project at school.

children in woods

In Smokey Bear Land (named for the mascot of the National Forest Service), we immersed ourselves in the cycles of nature. It was our playground and our teacher. In a time before laws protected such sensitive places we watched as homes gradually nibbled at the edges of the wetlands, from 100 acres to 50.

It has been a longtime since I was ten years old. But when I return to my old neighborhood I am glad that 50 acres remain. It is still a place where tadpoles hatch, birds nest and brook trout swim. Families still walk in the woods and are grateful that this wetlands continues to be a refuge, a home for neighbors who fly, swim, slither and walk.

On this Earth Day we know that such special places remain only because citizens like us demand and support legislation and zoning that protects. We know that all of life is interconnected and to be good stewards of our corner of the earth is a gift for the children today and for generations to come.