11 American Conservative Leaders who Embraced Environmentalism

In today’s culture, conservative environmentalism can sound like an oxymoron. But this hasn’t always been the case. Throughout American history, many notable leaders, popular authors, influential philosophers, and passionate citizens have stood up for both conservative and environmental values, proving these ideals are not mutually exclusive.


These visionary leaders used their power to promote policies which benefited the environment. They all recognized early signs of environmental problems and were brave enough to act on these issues.

Thomas Jefferson.

Although the word environmentalism was not coined until 1922, America’s third president was a visionary far ahead of his time. With his gift for imagining the future, Jefferson advocated for sustainable forestry and farming practices in many of his writings. He also ordered the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806), which resulted in new  information about early America’s natural resources, as well as the native flora and fauna.

Abraham Lincoln.

While most remembered (and rightfully so) for abolishing slavery and preserving the Union, the nation’s 16th president also left a legacy as a pioneer in conservation. By signing the Yosemite Grant Act (1864) into law, Lincoln designated Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California as protected lands for public use. This was the first time in US history that land had been set apart for posterity to enjoy, and it set a precedent which resulted in the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.  He also established the United States Department of Agriculture (1862) and the National Academy of Sciences (1863).

Theodore Roosevelt.

Well-known as a trailblazer for the environment, Roosevelt has a long list of accomplishments. In 1887, he co-founded The Boone and Crockett Club (a sort of sportsmen's conservation group), founded 230 million acres of public lands, established 5 National Parks, created 150 National Forests, and passed the Antiquities Act (1906), through which he created 18 national monuments. He also passed the Newlands Act (1902) and appointed the Inland Waterways commission (1907), through which he completed 24 reclamation projects, created the National Conservation Commission (1909), and created 51 federal bird reserves and four national game preserves.

Gifford Pinchot.

Though a lesser-known name on this list, Pinchot was an important voice for conservation during the Progressive era. He was the contemporary and appointee of Theodore Roosevelt, serving as the first Chief of the USDA Forest Service. He later served as the governor of Pennsylvania as well. He invented the term ‘conservation ethic,’ introduced the concept of scientific forestry, and advocated for the controlled and continuous use of forests in order to maximize profit while replenishing trees. His leadership was vital in helping Americans value the conservation of trees as a natural resource.  

Richard Nixon.

While his primary legacy is not a positive one, he did make some distinctly positive environmental contributions. Critics say his motives were mainly political, but regardless, he did some important things for conservation. Perhaps most notably, Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. He also passed the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Extension Act (1970), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974).

William Ruckelshaus.

He served as the first and fifth director of the EPA (between these roles, he served as director of the FBI and Deputy Attorney General of the United States — a true public servant!). He was instrumental in defining the mission of the EPA and in structuring its leadership and priorities. He also made the decision to ban the pesticide DDT.

Russell Train.

Train served as the second director of the EPA, and was a founder and chairman of the World Wildlife Fund. In his time as EPA director, serving under Nixon and Ford, he emphasized the need to evaluate environmental impact as the economy continued to grow rapidly.


While these individuals did not change official policies, they were significantly influential in shaping growing movements.

George Perkins Marsh.

Appointed by President Lincoln, Marsh was the 15th ambassador to Italy. Also a notable writer and philosopher, he is considered by many to be the first coined ‘environmentalist’, and wrote a book called Man and Nature (1864), which made a significant impact throughout the world as one of the first works to recognize the importance of what today is referred to as ‘sustainability.’

Russell Kirk.

Kirk was a notable political theorist and an influential conservative writer during the 20th century. In his 1960’s newspaper column ‘To the Point,’ he argued frequently for  conservation. He also authored an essay called Man, Enemy of Nature (1968), which solidified his place among influential conservatives who demonstrated concern for the environment.

George Bird Grinnell.

Grinnell was a close friend and ally of Teddy Roosevelt. Along with Roosevelt and others, he co-founded the Boone and Crockett Club (1887). He also helped organize the Audubon Society, which focuses on the conservation of birds and other wildlife.

These trailblazing conservative and environmental leaders understood that at the core of the conservative ideology is the value of being good stewards of what we have been given. For Americans, that includes all manner of natural resources, animals, plants, trees, water, air, natural wonders, and beautiful landmarks. Without the vision of these inspirational leaders, America would look quite differently today. Now it is our turn to continue their incredible legacy.   

Meghan Miller