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13 Reasons Why Jimmy Carter Is America’s Greenest President

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With the IPCC issuing it’s most dire warnings ever, we thought we’d take a look back (about four decades or so) at Jimmy Carter’s time in office for some inspiration.

Jimmy Carter’s term in office ended over 40 years ago with the election of Ronald Reagan. That’s a long time! So, he couldn’t possibly be the greenest president in American history? Surely we’ve had a president since Carter who has done more for climate solutions?

Not so fast! Since Carter was president, America has not had someone in the Oval Office who installed (and later had reversed) so many climate solutions. As a matter of fact, most of his successors have either ignored the problem or denied its very existence.

The First To Acknowledge The Seriousness Of Climate Change

demonstration, fridays for future, climate change-4891275.jpg
At the presidential level, Jimmy Carter was the first to acknowledge the seriousness of the growing climate crisis

Jimmy Carter was the first president to acknowledge we have a climate crisis. And this was back in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that another president was willing to admit there was a problem and take any actions to address it.

We’re talking about solar panels on the White House roof, changing climate reports, emissions standards, and so much more.

Still not sold? Think there’s been a greener president? Well, on this Friday the 13th, we’re giving you thirteen reasons why Jimmy Carter is the greenest president America’s ever had and a worthy addition to More Than Just Parks Environmental Heroes series.

More Than Just Parks considers Jimmy Carter to have been America’s Greenest President | And We’re Not Alone! (Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

“We must safeguard our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy freshwater, clean air, scenic mountains and coasts, fertile agricultural lands, and healthy, safe places to live and thrive.”

-Jimmy Carter

1. A Reverence For Nature From An Early Age | America’s Greenest President

From an early age, Jimmy Carter developed a reverence for nature.

“I have never been happier, more exhilarated, at peace, rested, inspired, and aware of the grandeur of the universe and the greatness of God,” Carter writes, “than when I find myself in a natural setting not much changed from the way He made it.”

-An Outdoor Journal: Adventures And Reflections, Jimmy Carter

For America's Greenest President, a life dedicated to environmental stewardship began at an early age.
From an early age, America’s Greenest President had a reverence for nature. He understood the importance of protecting it. (Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

Rachel Clark

Award winning journalist and Carter biographer Jonathan Alter (author of “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life“) in an upcoming documentary, CARTERLAND, attributes Carter’s love of the land to his friendship with an African-American sharecropper named Rachel Clark.

“The real connection to a spiritual life and to a life of appreciation of nature he attributes to a woman named Rachel Clark, an illiterate sharecropper whose husband was the foreman on the Carter farm.

Rachel would take Little Jimmy fishing. She taught him all about wildlife and the flora and fauna of Southwest Georgia. She imbued in him a connection between spiritual life and nature that helped to power his passion for the environment.”

2. Protecting Georgia’s Natural Resources | America’s Greenest President

Before being elected to the presidency, Jimmy Carter worked to protect Georgia’s natural resources first as a state senator and later as a governor.

America's Greenest President had Georgia's environment on his mind before he was elected to the presidency.
Jimmy Carter’s environmental legacy began long before he became president. Here he is with Sam Candler canoeing on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. (Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

In 1967, alongside leaders in business, government, and academia, Carter, who had recently served in the Georgia State Senate, lent his guidance and support to the creation of the Georgia Conservancy.

America's Greenest President became an early champion of conservation and environmental protection.
Jimmy Carter became an early champion of conservation and environmental protection. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

“I honestly believe that our greatest potential force for meeting challenges to our environment is in the several thousand highly-motivated and well-educated Georgians who are members of the Georgia Conservancy,” said Carter in his remarks at the 1968 Georgia Conservancy Conference.

Establishing The Georgia Heritage Trust

Long before he became America's Greenest President, Jimmy Carter was focused on environmental issues.
Environmental issues were important to Jimmy Carter long before he began his quest for the presidency.
(Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

As Governor, with the strong support of the Georgia Conservancy, Carter established the Georgia Heritage Trust, which identified key areas in Georgia for conservation and protection by the State.

The Georgia Heritage Trust would prove to be instrumental working with the state to preserve, protect and restore public lands and historic sites.

“Americans long thought that nature could take care of itself — or that if it did not, the consequences were someone else’s problem. As we know now, that assumption was wrong: none of us is a stranger to environmental problems.”

-President Jimmy Carter, Environmental Message, May 23, 1977
America's Greenest President lent his support, as governor, to the creation of the Cumberland Island National Seashore.
As governor, Jimmy Carter advocated successfully for the establishment of the Cumberland Island National Seashore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

RELATED: Whose Island Is It Anyway | A History & Guide To Cumberland Island

3. Canceling the Sprewell Bluff Dam (in 1973!) | America’s Greenest President

Jimmy Carter was the first governor in history to stop a federal dam project | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Phil Wise was a neighbor and friend who grew up with Jimmy Carter. He noted in an interview for the upcoming documentary, CARTERLAND, that, as governor, Jimmy Carter was the first governor in history to stop a dam project.

According to the Georgia Conservancy:

The proposed dam at Sprewell Bluff would have flooded one of the most scenic river valleys in the state and would have posed a significant threat to native species such as the shoals spider-lily and shoal bass.

Carter knew those waters, as he had spent time canoeing the river before making this bold decision to cancel the project.

Carter was way ahead of the curve on dam removal, something America is just coming around to now it seems.

“I want to make it clear, if there is ever a conflict [between environmental quality and economic growth], I will go for beauty, clean air, water and landscape.”

-Jimmy Carter

4. Jimmy Carter Created the Nation’s First Comprehensive National Energy Strategy | America’s Greenest President

America's Greenest President unveils solar panels at the White House.
In June of 1979, President Carter made a symbolic gesture to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to renewable energy. He had thirty-two solar panels added to the roof of the White House to heat water in the building. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy)

In 1977, President Carter signed legislation creating the Department of Energy. This agency would centralize existing government programs focusing on energy. The DOE would also implement Carter’s comprehensive national energy strategy.

An engineer by training, his approach was to seek comprehensive and far-reaching solutions to problems. When it came to energy policy, Jimmy Carter was thinking about the next generation rather than the next election.

How many leaders since Carter have put the welfare of the public ahead of their own political ambitions?

5. Jimmy Carter TRIPLED the Size of the Wild & Scenic River System | America’s Greenest President

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
America’s Greenest President would, with the single stroke of a pen, preserve and protect 157 million acres. This would be the largest single protection of public lands in history. (Courtesy of CARTERAND)

Jimmy Carter designated 39 new Wild and Scenic Rivers as President, more than tripling the size of the existing Wild & Scenic River System.

On his last day in office alone, he protected over 1,300 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers across the country which represents nearly 10% of our current Wild and Scenic inventory.

6. Jimmy Carter Doubled the Size of the National Park System | America’s Greenest President

kenai fjords national park alaska
Kenai Fjords was one of the national parks protected by Jimmy Carter.

When it comes to public lands protections, Jimmy Carter set a new standard of excellence which has not been matched since he left office.

With the stroke of his pen (and an unbelievable amount of bipartisan work with Congress) Carter created 11 National Parks (doubling the size of the national park system).

National Parks Created by Jimmy Carter:

  1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  2. Channel Islands National Park
  3. Biscayne National Park
  4. Gates of the Artic National Park
  5. Glacier Bay National Park
  6. Katmai National Park
  7. Kenai Fjords National Park
  8. Kobuk Valley National Park
  9. Lake Clark National Park
  10. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
  11. Denali National Park

So, now it’s up to a new generation. We’re looking at how many charlatans are in politics.  How many people that are dodging taxes, that are looking at the country for their own personal benefit. One can long for the days of a Jimmy Carter.

A selfless public servant who told people the truth and had a vision about America the Beautiful. One where we protected our waterways and our woodlands and our wetlands and swamps and coastal areas.  We have not had a president since Carter that prioritized conservation, that made it one of their number one things.”

-Historian Douglas Brinkley, CARTERLAND Interview

7. Creation of the Endangered American Wilderness Act

In 1978, President Carter signed the Endangered American Wilderness Act. It was the largest single addition to the wilderness areas since the original enactment of the act. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

In 1978, President Carter signed the Endangered American Wilderness Act. In his remarks at the bill signing, he said:

“This act will add about 1.3 million acres in 10 Western States to the wilderness areas of our country, expanding 4 existing wilderness areas and adding 13 new areas at this time.

This represents the largest single addition to the wilderness areas of our country since the original enactment of the wilderness act in 1964, and it brings the total acreage in this system now to 15.7 million acres.”

8. The Alaska Lands Act | America’s Greenest President

America's Greenest President would act decisively to preserve and protect larges areas within Alaska.
President Carter’s historic Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created most of the national parklands in Alaska. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

During Carter’s presidency, America’s most trusted newsman was legendary CBS News Anchor, Walter Cronkite.

After the historic passage of one of Carter’s most important environmental actions, called the Alaska Lands National Interest Conservation Act (ANILCA), Cronkite had this to say:

“President Carter today more than doubled the size of the National Park System by invoking his executive authority to protect 56 millions acres of Alaskan Wilderness. Environmental groups said Carter has now replaced Teddy Roosevelt as the greatest conservation president of all time.”

America's most trusted news anchor recognized the achievements of America's Greenest President.
It was legendary CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite who referred to Jimmy Carter the “Greatest Conservation President Of All Time.” (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

“Future generations of conservation leaders must remember that we are stewards of a precious gift, which is not an unpleasant duty, but rather an exciting challenge. We must safeguard our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy freshwater, clean air, scenic mountains and coasts, fertile agricultural lands, and healthy, safe places to live and thrive.”

-President Jimmy Carter

9. Raising the Fuel Efficiency Standards, Big Time | America’s Greenest President

President Carter’s CAFE standards meant that vehicles being produced in America would have to be more fuel efficient. (Courtesy of NARA)

Jimmy Carter understood that energy was finite not limitless. One of the actions he took as president was to confront Americans wasteful energy habits.

He imposed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards on automotive fleets to ensure that vehicles being produced by Detroit would become more energy efficient.

Carter’s CAFE standards, that were later revised downward by the Reagan administration, called for 48 miles per gallon by 1995.

10. Creation of Superfund Legislation | America’s Greenest President

Love Canal residents discuss revitalizing their contaminated neighborhood with Administrator Lee Thomas. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Love Canal was a public health catastrophe waiting to happen. In the 1950s, the Hooker Chemical & Plastics Corporation deeded the site to the Niagara Falls Board of Education. They did this so an elementary school could be built on the site to serve the growing community.

An unselfish act of corporate largess? Not so fast! Unbeknownst to the residents, Hooker Chemical had been dumping toxic wastes into the canal making the site unsuitable for human occupation.

During the 1970s, a growing number of complaints to the public health department led to the realization that the area was extremely unsafe. Not only was Love Canal unsafe, it turned out, but so were a number of sites across the United States.

“The Superfund legislation… may prove to be as far-reaching and important as any accomplishment of my administration. The reduction of the threat to America’s health and safety from thousands of toxic-waste sites will continue to be an urgent…issue.”

-President Jimmy Carter

America’s Greenest President Responds To The Crisis

Unlike the more recent Wall Street bailouts, Carter believed that those responsible should pay the costs for their misdeeds. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

President Carter was more interested in creating comprehensive solutions than scoring political points. He didn’t want to merely fix the problem at Love Canal. He wanted to fix the problem at all of the hazardous waste sites across America.

On June 13, 1979, President Carter asked Congress for legislation establishing a $1.6 billion fund to enable the Government to respond to Love Canal and similar hazards.

Unlike the more recent Wall Street bailouts, Carter believed that those responsible should pay the costs for their misdeeds. The financial burden for solving this problem would fall on the shoulders of those who had created it. What a novel idea!

The Superfund

America's Greenest President acted to clean up hazardous waste sites.
The Valley of the Drums, a toxic waste dump in northern Bullitt County, Kentucky. This site was one of the reasons the U.S. Superfund law was enacted. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Special legislation was enacted that became known as the Superfund and, on December 11, 1980, shortly before he left office, President Carter approved the Superfund to control toxic wastes at sites throughout the United States.

11. Carter Was The First President To Acknowledge The Seriousness Of Climate Change

Climate-induced catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina, might have been avoided had we heeded the warnings which came as a result of America's Greenest President.
New Orleans, LA, Sept. 14, 2005 — Large parts of New Orleans remain flooded two weeks after several levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Global 2000 Report, which was commissioned by President Carter, would land on his successor’s desk in 1983. He and every Republican who succeeded him has ignored the report’s warnings about the potential consequences of a changing climate. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Gus Speth, who was the co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also served as Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality Chairman.

Speth, who appears in CARTERLAND, notes that Carter was really the first one to acknowledge the seriousness of the climate threat at the presidential level.

President Carter was the first leader to provide a comprehensive assessment of the environmental challenges confronting humankind.

“Another problem we face is the risk that man’s own activities––now significant on a global scale––might adversely affect the earth’s environment and ecosystem. Destruction of the ozone layer, increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and alteration of oceanic flow patterns are examples of the problems we must understand before changes are irreversible or the consequences inevitable.”

President Jimmy Carter – March 27 1979

The Global 2000 Report

Speth states, “We asked the President to do a big report on what the country might look like in the year 2000, twenty years down the road, if we didn’t respond to global scale challenges in environment and resources and population.”

So it took us much of the administration to do it, but we finally produced what became known as the Global 2000 Report. In 1980, we released the Global 2000 Report and it was a an eyeopener and it really gave birth to this international environmental agenda.”

12. Managing The Three Mile Island Crisis | America’s Greenest President

As a naval officer, America's Greenest President had a unique understanding of the risks and rewards of nuclear power.
As President, Carter was uniquely qualified to manage the Three Mile Island crisis. He had campaigned for the presidency by telling people he had served in the navy as a nuclear physicist and nuclear engineer.
(Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

The Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This represented the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.

Given the lax regulatory standards put in place before Jimmy Carter became president, the crisis tested his leadership. Once again, he sought a comprehensive solution to the problem.

His administration was the first to rewrite the regulations which governed the nuclear power industry. More stringent standards meant a reduced likelihood that future accidents would occur as subsequent history has demonstrated.

Why Not the Best?

America's Greenest President would display unprecedented crisis management skills at Three Mile Island.
Jimmy Carter would reassure a frightened public by touring the damaged nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

As President, Carter was uniquely qualified to manage the Three Mile Island crisis. He had campaigned for the presidency by telling people he had served as a nuclear physicist and nuclear engineer in the navy.

He had written in his autobiography, “Why Not the Best?,” about his role with an early Navy crisis team that had helped disassemble a damaged reactor core at a plant in Canada.

Unprecedented Crisis Management

The more recent nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate the wisdom of Carter’s actions in implementing stricter safety standards. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Carter traveled to the site of the damaged nuclear facility to reassure a frightened public. He followed his visit with the establishment of a presidential commission which recommended stringent standards for the future operations of any nuclear power plant in the United States.

Carter’s leadership in reassuring the public and pushing for more stringent safety standards meant that the nuclear power industry in the United States would be the safest in the world.

The subsequent nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate the wisdom of Carter’s actions.

13. A Lifetime Environmental Champion | America’s Greenest President

It would fall to America's Greenest President to act to safeguard the nuclear power industry.
Jimmy Carter would be called on to make the tough decisions on nuclear power which his Republican predecessors had managed to avoid. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Jimmy Carter continued to live the values and champion the causes in which he believed long after leaving the presidency. Since that time, he has lived in his $167,000 home in Plains, Georgia.

Carter, unlike all of his successors, has refused to be paid for giving speeches. Nor has he been paid for sitting on corporate boards. The only income he receives, outside of his government pension, is through the sales of his books.

America's Greenest President would continue to live the values and champion the causes he campaigned for long after leaving office.
Jimmy Carter would walk the walk after leaving office by continuing to live the values and champion the causes in which he believed. (Courtesy of Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

Like other presidents, Carter uses his particular type of celebrity to raise money. Unlike other presidents, he donates it to the Carter Center where it is used to wage peace, fight disease and build hope.

When it comes to the environment, America’s greenest president is America’s greenest ex-president. Long out of elected office, he continues to lead by example.

In 2017, Carter Family land in the heart of Plains became home to more than 3800 solar panels, which produce enough electricity to power half the town.

The values Jimmy Carter preached while president are still the values he practices today. And, he continues to live these values whether anyone is paying attention or not.

“We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

-Jimmy Carter

Recapping The Extraordinary Public Service Of America’s Greenest President

  1. A Reverence For Nature From An Early Age
  2. Protected Georgia’s Natural Resources
  3. Cancelled The Sprewell Bluffs Dam
  4. A Comprehensive National Energy Strategy
  5. Tripled The Size Of Wild & Scenic River System
  6. Doubled the Size of the National Parks System
  7. Created the Endangered American Wilderness Act
  8. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act
  9. Raised the Fuel Efficiency Standards
  10. Created the Superfund Legislation
  11. First President to Acknowledge Climate Change
  12. Managing The Three Mile Island Crisis
  13. A Lifetime Environmental Champion

Map of National Parks Created by Jimmy Carter

Upcoming Film – CARTERLAND

The Filmmakers behind CARTERLAND talk with Good Day Atlanta

Synopsis: In the mid 1970s a leader decades ahead of his time is locked in a struggle for the future of his country. His name is Jimmy Carter.

This article is part of our ongoing Environmental Heroes Series. So far we’ve chronicled legends like Jimmy Carter, Rachel Carson, George Bird Grinnell, Stephen Mather, & we’re only just getting started!

Summary | Leave Us a Comment!

That’s a wrap folks! Let us know what you think by leaving us a comment below. If you like this post you might be interested in checking out our other recent Jimmy Carter post – No, Theodore Roosevelt Was Not The Greatest Conservationist President. It Was Jimmy Carter.

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Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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