Jimmy Carter, the president who tried to save the planet

Source: By Maxine Joselow, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Democrat helped protect more than 100 million acres of land in Alaska and championed renewable energy

President Jimmy Carter, center, is surrounded by reporters and photographers as he inspects new solar panels on the roof of the White House on June 20, 1979. (Harvey Georges/AP)

He installed solar panels on the White House. He urged Americans to turn down their thermostats while sporting a sweater. And he pressured Congress into putting tens of millions of acres in Alaska off limits to development.

Despite serving a single term, Jimmy Carter ranks as one of the most consequential U.S. presidents when it comes to environmentalism, according to historians, conservationists and several former federal officials.

Carter, who entered home hospice care on Saturday at 98, could identify every bird in the trees of Plains, Ga., where he was born in 1924 on his parents’ peanut farm. As a boy, he had a pet alligator and enjoyed trips with his father to the Okefenokee Swamp, the largest wetland in the South.

As the United States’ 39th president from 1977 to 1981, Carter hung a map of Alaska in the Oval Office. It was where he made his biggest conservation mark, using his executive authority in 1978 to designate 56 million acres as federally protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

At the time, it was the most public land any president in U.S. history had designated as off limits to development, prompting intense local protests. Weeks before leaving office, Carter also signed legislation protecting more than 100 million acres of land in Alaska.

Carter will “go down, along with people like Theodore Roosevelt and [Franklin D. Roosevelt], as one of the greatest conservation presidents or environmental presidents of all time,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, in a phone interview.

As his Interior secretary, Carter chose Cecil D. Andrus, who vowed to crack down on industry influence over the agency. “The domination of the department by mining, oil, timber, grazing and other interests is over,” Andrus once told the New York Times.

And Carter pushed back against federal water projects, including those backed by members of his own party, on the grounds that erecting dams across the American West would harm the health of rivers. Andrus initially angered many on Capitol Hill by proposing to kill 19 ongoing federal water projects. He later expanded the list to target 32 projects of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The proposal, which became known as the “hit list,” delighted environmentalists. But it sparked outrage among Western lawmakers — including some fellow Democrats — who hoped to see the federal funds flow to projects in their states.

“It provoked a political insurrection in the West and led to two years of debates in the Congress,” recalled Bruce Babbitt, who was the Democratic governor of Arizona at the time, in an interview.

Congress ultimately defeated much of Carter’s proposal. But some of it went forward under a compromise that cut funding for 18 projects and modified five others. The remaining nine continued intact.

Tom Kiernan, president and chief executive of the advocacy group American Rivers, said Carter was “well ahead of his time” in recognizing the threats to the nation’s rivers, which are now being parched by a climate-change-fueled megadrought.

“He was kind of the original river champion for this country,” Kiernan said. “Even then, the politics were tough. It was a combat sport, if you will, and he stood up for the rivers.”

Alaska, which is home to some of the biggest blocks of untouched wilderness in the country, continues to define Carter’s environmental legacy.

Despite losing the 1980 election, Carter successfully pressured Congress that year to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The landmark law protected more than 100 million acres of Alaskan land, including national parks, national monuments and other sites.

Alaska politicians and environmentalists have fought over one of those sites, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, for more than three decades.

Residents of King Cove, a remote town on the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula, have sought to exchange land to build a road through the refuge. Alaska lawmakers say the road would provide a route in poor weather for medical evacuations to the closest regional airport, while environmentalists counter that it would fragment critical habitat for migratory birds, bears, caribou and other species.

Ryan Zinke, who served as Interior secretary under President Donald Trump, signed a 2018 land-swap agreement to allow the construction of the gravel road. His successor, David Bernhardt, made a similar deal in 2019. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in March upheld the land deal in a 2-1 decision, with two judges appointed by Trump ruling in favor.

But in response to a request from environmental groups, the 9th Circuit in November agreed to rehear the case. Environmentalists have also criticized the Biden administration, which has argued in legal filings that the land deal is valid.

As one of his last public acts, Carter took the unusual step of filing a brief last year that voiced support for the environmentalists, saying the road would undermine one of his signature achievements.

“My name is Jimmy Carter,” he wrote in the brief. “In my lifetime, I have been a farmer, a naval officer, a Sunday school teacher, an outdoorsman, a democracy activist, a builder, governor of Georgia and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And from 1977 to 1981, I had the privilege of serving as the 39th president of the United States.”

In response, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called Carter out of touch.

“Mr. Carter is strangely confident he knows best for the Aleut people of King Cove,” Murkowski tweeted. “Perhaps he should walk a mile in their shoes, by departing his comfortable home and living there for a while, to see what it is like to be without reliable access to emergency care.”

Deborah Williams, an environmental consultant who has known Carter for decades, said he was working on the land-swap issue as recently as last month.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who recently visited King Cove but did not announce any position on the issue, has the power to kill the project “with the stroke of a pen,” Williams said. “It is a devastating precedent that decimates the protections in ANILCA and President Carter’s legacy, so it needs to be rescinded immediately.”

Babbitt said it’s “remarkable” that Carter, who defied illness for years, took such an enduring interest in the issue.

“Forty-one years after he left the presidency, he was still advocating for the environment and for Alaska,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary fact.”

Carter’s environmental agenda also extended to the White House grounds, where he lowered the thermostat and installed 32 solar panels as part of his push to save energy and curb America’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people,” Carter said at the dedication ceremony for the solar panels in 1979.

Ronald Reagan would later remove the solar panels; Barack Obama put new ones back a generation later. But in a move that proved more durable, Carter signed a bill creating the Energy Department, which grew from a fledgling agency to today’s sprawling network of nearly 14,000 employees at headquarters in Washington and 17 national labs nationwide.

Carter also proposed tax credits of up to $2,000 for solar panels to heat homes’ hot water. And he called for renewable energy to make up 20 percent of the nation’s energy mix by 2000. (Renewables made up just 7 percent of energy consumption that year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

These moves grew out of Carter’s desire to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil following the 1973 oil embargo. But his energy plan ultimately failed to clear Congress, and an energy crisis in the summer of 1979 — defined by long lines at gas stations — hurt his approval ratings and helped doom his reelection chances.

“He was promising a solution, only to then fail miserably in the eyes of the public,” Meg Jacobs, a Princeton University historian, told The Washington Postin 2021.

Carter could have done more to wean the country off fossil fuels had he won a second term, said Gus Speth, who chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration.

“He would have gone on in a second administration to tackle in a more explicit and serious way the reliance on fossil fuels and its link to what we now see as the climate crisis,” Speth said. “I’m as confident as one can be about these things.”

“I think we’ve had some good environmental presidents, including the one we have now,” he added. “But I think Carter really felt it in his soul.”

Carter has spent his final years exploring his property in Georgia (with the Secret Service in tow), fishing, birdwatching and otherwise enjoying the natural resources that he has worked to protect. Even in his early 90s, he and his wife Rosalynn went fishing at CNN founder Ted Turner’s ranch every summer, said former senator Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), a friend.

In his 1988 memoir “An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections,” Carter reflected on the importance of nature in his own life and the need to preserve it for future generations: “I have never been happier, more exhilarated, at peace, rested, inspired, and aware of the grandeur of the universe and the greatness of God than when I find myself in a natural setting not much changed from the way He made it.”