On February 18, 1969, Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) introduces the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into the U.S. Senate. This is the original version, later altered, of the bill that President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) will sign into law on January 1, 1970. This bill is the most sweeping manifestation yet of Jackson's ambitious environmental agenda, which already had resulted in the creation of two new national parks -- North Cascades and Redwood -- and several anti-pollution and wilderness bills. The bill reflects a growing environmental awareness among the public and lawmakers, soon symbolized by the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The bill will become the linchpin of U.S. environmental policy and a crucial part of Jackson’s political legacy -- even if he came to regret some aspects of it.
A Sweeping Environmental Initiative
By early 1969, the time was politically ripe for a sweeping environmental legislative initiative. A huge oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in January 1969 had shocked Americans with images of black beaches and dead birds. Urban smog had become a grim national joke and some rivers and lakes had become unswimmable and unfishable.
Jackson, as the powerful chairman of the Senate Interior Committee, had been especially active in preparing and promoting new anti-pollution laws and park bills. In 1968, he shepherded Redwood National Park and North Cascades National Park into existence, which earned him the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award in March 1969.
This original NEPA bill, S. 1075, crafted by Jackson and his advisers, was relatively subdued compared to what it would evolve into. It called for the Interior Secretary to conduct ecological research and for the creation of a Council on Environmental Quality to advise the president. It did not yet include two of the most significant provisions of the final NEPA bill: a soaring statement of national policy and a requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement on all major federal projects.
It would acquire these later, as Jackson refined the bill and worked out compromises with other senators and the House of Representatives. The bill passed both houses of Congress easily in December 1969 and became law on the first day of 1970.
Planet vs. Payrolls
It was part of a high tide of environmental awareness rolling across the nation. Yet on April 22, 1970, when the U.S. celebrated the first Earth Day, it was clear that the environment had already become a prickly political issue. Jackson was invited to an Earth Day "environmental teach-in" at the University of Washington, where students heckled him. Washington Post columnist Nicholas von Hoffman (b. 1929) accused him in 1971 of being a defender of "sludge, crud, grinch, gunk, funk, blue algae black air, oil slicks and general industrial barf" (Prochnau and Larsen, p. 278).
That’s because Jackson was a supporter of the Trans-Alaskan Oil Pipeline, the SST transport plan,e and other environmentally unpopular projects. He had already seen his own NEPA statute being used by environmentalists to stall the pipeline. Yet Jackson believed in a balanced approach. He believed in "saving both the planet and the payrolls" (Prochnau and Larsen, p. 266).
He put the issue in forceful terms in a speech to the AFL-CIO in 1971. He claimed that environmental extremists "exemplified the politics of the emotional binge" and had a "gloom and doom" mentality (Kaufman, p. 205). He accused them of wanting to shut down factories and ban cars. He privately wondered where the environmentalists had been when he was fighting for the North Cascades and Redwood national parks. "Nowhere to be found," he fumed (Prochnau and Larsen, p. 279)
The Magna Carta of Environmental Legislation
NEPA became a key part of Jackson’s legacy, even though he was not always happy about the way the NEPA statute was interpreted by the courts. Yet he believed that, in balance, the law was a vital and important safeguard for the environment.
NEPA would become, by some measures, "perhaps his (Jackson’s) most impressive legislative victory" (Prochnau and Larsen, p. 273). It is commonly referred to today as the Magna Carta of environmental legislation.