William Perry Pendley: Ansel Adams, Wyoming, and Ronald Reagan

William Perry Pendley writes, "President Reagan and Wyoming's own James Watt set a record, yet unbroken, for issuing federal oil and gas leases. By 2019, their efforts yielded American energy independence." Photographer Ansel Adams was not a fan.

William Perry Pendley

July 03, 20246 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The recent commemoration near Moose, Wyoming, of the addition of the iconic “The Tetons and the Snake River” photograph taken in 1942 by legendary nature photographer Ansel Adams as one of 16 Adams photographs add to the U.S. Postal Service’s “Ansel Adams Forever” series, reminds me of another Ansel Adams connection with Wyoming.   

That involves Ansel Adams, Ronald Reagan, and Wyoming’s own James G. Watt of Lusk. 

It was Watt after all who accepted Reagan’s offer to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, after Wyoming U.S. Senator Clifford P. Hansen of Jackson, turned Reagan down. 

With that job came responsibility for implementing Reagan’s plans to increase production of energy from federal lands (resolving the nation’s energy, economic, and foreign affairs problems), to end the ”Sagebrush Rebellion” that erupted in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, and to restore state sovereignty.  

During his 1980 campaign, Reagan belittled Carter for his failure to develop energy on multiple-use (that is, not parks, wilderness areas, or refuges) federal lands. 

What’s he afraid of, Reagan asked rhetorically at the Republican National Convention, “that more [discoveries] will be made?” 

As a result, Reagan, through Watt and his successors, William P. Clark, and Donald Paul Hodel, set a record, yet unbroken, for issuing federal oil and gas leases, both onshore and offshore. 

By 2019, their efforts yielded American energy independence. 

Meanwhile, Watt ended Carter’s “War on the West,” which had infuriated western, mostly Democrat, governors, and thus quelled the rebellion by keeping the federal government’s commitments to western states and Alaska. 

In addition, Reagan and Watt deferred to states because of Reagan’s recognition, as he put it that, “the federal government did not create the States; the States created the federal government.”

All of this drove radical environmental groups, which helped elect Carter and ran much of his administration’s western, energy, and environmental policies, bonkers.  

“Environmental extremists” or “modern day Luddites,” as Reagan termed them, were relentless in their attacks on both Reagan and Watt, but one man became obsessed with his broadsides against the two men. 

Yes, that would be Ansel Adams, who was not only a legendary nature photographer, but was also an “environmentalist.”  In fact, so fanatical was he that he began writing “a letter a day to newspapers and congressmen decrying President Reagan’s ‘disastrous’ environmental policies and his interior secretary, James G. Watt.” 

He warned of “a catastrophe,” “a tragedy,” and “the Pearl Harbor of our American Earth.”  Then, in May of 1983, in an interview, Adams declared flatly, “I hate Reagan.” 

That got Reagan’s attention. Emerging from the Oval Office, he told a top aide, “I want to talk to this man, Adams, to find out why he dislikes me so much.”

In the meantime, Reagan decided it was “time to clear the air and straighten out the record on where my administration stands on environmental and natural resources management matters,” which was how he began his weekly radio address on June 11, 1983. 

He closed, “We have made a commitment to protect the health of our citizens and to conserve our nation’s natural beauty and resources. . . . Thanks to [our] efforts, our country remains ‘America the Beautiful.’ Indeed, it’s growing healthier and more beautiful each year.  I hope this helps set the record straight, because it’s one we can all be proud of.”

Of course, Reagan had been involved deeply in these issues during his two terms as governor of California; he had researched, written, and spoken about them in his weekly radio addresses for years after leaving Sacramento; and, on become president, he knew exactly what he wanted his administration to accomplish. 

Now he was ready to meet Adams, which he did a couple of weeks later in Beverly Hills, calling him “the great nature photographer.”  Reagan wrote about the meeting in his diary:

"He has expressed hatred for me because of my supposed stand on the environment. I asked for the meeting. I gave him chapter and verse about where I really stand on the environment and what our record is. All in all the meeting seemed pleasant enough and I thought maybe I’d taken some of the acid out of his ink.  Then I read the story of the meeting as he’d given it to the press. I’m afraid I was talking to ears that refused to hear."

Sure enough, Adams had emerged from his meeting with Reagan unconvinced.  He assailed him personally—faulting his intelligence, imagination, and “aura”—and attacked his policies and the people appointed to implement them. 

At the end of its story about the incident, however, the Washington Post admitted, “For all his intense anger at [Reagan and Watt], Adams said he is hard-pressed to document widespread environmental damage from their policies.”  

It was not really Adams’ fault. 

The mainstream media had published “the sky-is-falling and Reagan is to blame” claims by radical environmental groups since Reagan’s election and his naming of Watt as his Interior secretary. 

Bragged the New York Times, “for the first time, the environment as an issue emerged, if only temporarily, as a dominant feature on the nation’s political landscape.  It was an issue that captured and then held the public’s attention for weeks and preoccupied the government at its highest levels.” 

No doubt the New York Times expected the American public to share its passionate perspective on the subject. 

Perhaps the people did. Said a Los Angeles Times poll, three out of every four voters who listed environmental protection as one of the most important issues planned to vote against Reagan and for his 1984 presidential opponent, former U.S. Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota, Jimmy Carter’s Vice President.

The trouble was, only four percent of all voters labeled environmental protection as one of the issues of most importance to them. Reagan won in a landslide.

*Mr. Pendley, a Wyoming attorney and Colorado-based, public-interest lawyer for three decades with victories at the Supreme Court of the United States, served in the Reagan administration and led the Bureau of Land Management for President Trump.

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William Perry Pendley