The Last Green Republican? Russell E. Train, 1920-2012

Russell E. Train. | Photo: Courtesy The Heinz Awards
Russell E. Train. | Photo: Courtesy The Heinz Awards

Russell E. Train's death on Monday, September 17 may not mark the end of an era. But it sure seems to.

He was deeply engaged with some of the late 20th-century's most pivotal environmental issues, and did so as a Republican stalwart -- Richard Nixon, for example, appointed him as the EPA's second administrator. So effective was he that it is hard to imagine anyone like him emerging out of the once-Grand Old Party.

That would be a real shame. For with Train's demise, we have lost a "conservative conservationist," the term his biographer J. Brooks Fippen coined to capture Train's unique stature and singular contribution to modern environmentalism. It suggests too that we may have lost an important political option to help us build a robust bipartisan coalition to make the planet more resilient, healthy, and biodiverse.

Educated at Princeton, and trained as a lawyer at Columbia, Train's career early on seemed destined to remain behind the scenes. He was fascinated by the Washington hurly-burly but was always out of the limelight. In the late 1940s he began serving as counsel to a number of congressional committees. During the Eisenhower administration he worked briefly for the U. S. Treasury, and then the president appointed him to the U.S. Tax Court, on whose bench he sat from 1957 to 1965. For a detail-oriented and brilliant legal mind, this was good work.

It was not Train's passion, however, that he discovered while on a pair of safaris in Africa in the late 1950s. He arrived as east Africa was shaking off British colonialism and replacing it with a spate of new independent states. It was a time too when regional economic pressures and demographic migrations were coming into conflict with the remaining populations of large mammals. He went to Africa to see nature in action, and came away worried that the animals he longed to encounter were as endangered as Africans' democratic strivings were fragile.

Binding together environmental protection and social betterment became the mission of the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, which he founded in 1961 with friends and benefactors. Its goal was to train Africans in big-animal stewardship and habitat preservation, generating new work that revolved around an enhanced commitment to landscape conservation.

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So effective was Train's activism, fundraising, and publicity efforts that Fairfield Osborne, founder of the old-line Conservation Foundation, tried to convince Train that he should merge his group with the New York-based education and research policy organization. Train wasn't interested.


A few years later, Osborne, author of the bestselling Our Plundered Planet (1949), a blistering critique of the threat runaway population growth and rampant materialism was having on the Earth's sustainability, approached Train with a different offer. Become the new president of the Conservation Foundation. Train was torn. His wife Aileen gave him the final prod: it was time, she told him, to decide whether he wanted to remain a judge or become a conservationist; he could convert his passion into a profession. Train made the leap.

And landed on his feet. Demonstrating just how agile was his footing, Train's first act as Conservation Foundation president was to move the organization from New York to Washington, D. C. The timing was perfect, for Congress was enacting a series of high-priority environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act (1964); Endangered Species Preservation Act (1968); and National Trails System Act (1968). Train drew in policy wonks and scientific researchers to advocate for these important initiatives and others, making the Conservation Foundation an energizing force in the environmental movement.

In 1968, presidential candidate Richard Nixon took notice. He liked Train's insistence that a robust environmental agenda could be, as Train later put it in his memoir, "Politics, Pollution, and Pandas," a "unifying political force." We don't hear that much any longer from any politician, let alone a Republican. But Train meant it, Nixon bought it, and when he became chief executive, Nixon appointed Train Undersecretary of the Interior.

He would use that post like a bully pulpit, fighting against development encroaching on the Everglades, boosting such congressional legislation as the Coastal Zone Management Act (1972) and a raft of the clean-water initiatives, as well as promoting the legal requirement that developers must file environmental-impact statements before they let loose the bulldozer or unslung the wrecking ball.

Success bred success. Train, an administration proponent of the National Environment Policy Act (1970), became the first chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that that act brought into being. When the Nixon White House imploded during the Watergate scandal, the level-headed Train became moved over to direct the Environmental Protection Administration.

Cover of the Environmental Impact of the Big Cypress Swamp Jetport, which led to the creation of Big Cypress National Preserve abut Everglades National Park in Florida. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Dept. of the Interior
Cover of the Environmental Impact of the Big Cypress Swamp Jetport, which led to the creation of Big Cypress National Preserve abut Everglades National Park in Florida. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Dept. of the Interior

Much as he had done at the Conservation Foundation, Interior, and CEQ, Train pulled in top-flight advisers from the sciences and social sciences to help make the case for more significant regulations governing clean air and water, land and sea. Among the legislative achievements he backed was the Endangered Species Act (1973), a regulatory thorn in the side of modern-day right-wingers who would like nothing better than to obliterate the law.

Not for them, then, the lesson that Russell Train repeatedly drew from his work in Washington. His many successes, all aided by a Democratic-controlled Congress, demonstrated the inescapable value of an across-the-aisle environmental politics.

Contemporary Republicans would not abide his environmental ethic, either: "If we're to be responsible, we must accept the fact that we owe a massive debt to our environment," Train affirmed in 1970, a debt that "won't be settled in a matter of months, and it won't be forgiven us."

Train continued to practice what he preached after leaving government to direct the World Wildlife Fund. Building up its global capacities required him to develop close working relations with legislators of all stripes, as well as reaching out across the globe to movers and shakers, the humble and ordinary. He raised lots of money for the cause; and even more hopes that humans could become conscientious stewards, less selfish, more selfless.

Alas, the George W. Bush administration failed to live up this high expectation. When it repeatedly ignored its responsibilities to develop a far-reaching climate-change agenda, for example, Train joined with all former EPA administrators to chastise the Republican powers-that-be: "[Climate change] is a major disaster for the world," he asserted in 2006. "We need leadership, and I don't think we're getting it. To sit back and just push it away and say we'll deal with it sometime down the road is dishonest . . . and self-destructive."

His principled environmentalism was among the reasons why the Heinz Foundation tapped him as the seventh recipient of its prestigious achievement award. Although it overstated Train's importance -- asserting that "He was the architect of an environmental agenda without parallel in history in its scope" -- it is fair to say that Train was one of the most influential environmentalists of his generation.

That's no diss. Always proactive and determined, equally optimistic and pragmatic, Train battled for more than 50 years to expand environmental protections, making alliances with any and all partners in and out of the political arena. He acted on the belief that government mattered; that the job of legislators was to legislate -- to govern. For him, public service was service. When those holding office produced law it must benefit the commonweal, which by Russell Train's lights meant all creatures bright and beautiful, great and small, wise and wonderful.

We need more like him.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For the Record: This story originally said Train died on Tuesday, September 17, 2012. It has been corrected to say Monday, September 17, 2012.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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