Bush Pledges Wetlands Expansion, Restoration

WELLS, Maine, April 23, 2004 (ENS) - President George W. Bush touted a new wetlands restoration plan on Thursday and said he understands his responsibility to conserve and improve the nation's natural resources.

Speaking at an Earth Day event at a Maine nature reserve, Bush said he has enacted "some of the most important anti-pollution policies in a decade" and has improved the condition of America's land, air and water - a statement refuted by environmentalists.

National environmental groups, activists and Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry have spent much of the week bashing the Bush environmental record, which they contend is the worst of any U.S. president.

But Bush paid them little heed in his Earth Day speech at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.

"The importance about Earth Day is that it reminds us that we can not take the natural wonders for granted," Bush said. "We have responsibilities to the natural world to conserve that which we have and to make it even better."

"In the years since Earth Day was established, America has made great strides in honoring the ideal of conservation and living by high standards of stewardship," Bush told the Maine audience. "We have made tremendous progress during the last four years."

The president specifically praised his administration's air pollution plans, its support for brownfields redevelopment and its efforts to cut phosphorus releases into the nation's waterways.


President George W. Bush (right) stands with Paul Dest, manager of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve on Earth Day 2004. (Photo courtesy White House)
After touring the wetlands restoration efforts at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, Bush said it is time to move beyond a policy of trying to limit the loss of wetlands to one that focuses on expanding the nation's wetlands.

"We can achieve this goal - it is a realistic goal," Bush said. "To do so, we will work to restore and to improve and to protect at least three million acres of wetlands over the next five years."

Wetlands play important roles in providing flood control, natural water purification and essential wildlife habitat, in particular for migratory birds.

More than half the wetlands in the lower 48 states have been destroyed - the federal government estimates some 105 million acres remain.

Figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Bush said, show that the nation has "greatly reduced the annual loss of wetlands."

"We are nearing a long standing goal of actually restoring as many acres of wetlands that are lost," Bush said. "The figures show that on agricultural lands, we have seen some gains for the first time, which leads me to believe we can do a better job in the nation if we focus our attention."

The USDA survey of private agricultural lands finds that average wetlands losses from 1997 to 2002 were 10,000 acres - for the previous five year period the average annual loss was 26,000 acres.

Overall annual wetlands losses are estimated at some 60,000 acres, but this is significantly down from the mid-1900s when some 500,000 acres were lost each year.

Bush said a key part of his plan is to provide incentives for landowners to restore wetlands and to encourage public private partnerships for improving the quality of existing wetlands.

He stressed the role private landowners and volunteers must play in conservation efforts - a strong theme of Bush environmental policies.

"Good conservation and good stewardship will happen when people say, 'I am just not going to rely upon the government to be the solution to the problem,'" Bush said.

"What is interesting about this year's Earth Day is that it falls in the middle of National Volunteer Week," Bush said. "One of my responsibilities is to call people to a higher calling. If you are not volunteering, do so."

Environmentalists accused the president of making a hollow promise and contend his administration has shown a hostile attitude toward wetlands protection.


Migratory birds depend on wetlands for critical habitat. (Photo by Stephan Dobert courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
"Despite what the President may say on Earth Day, every other day of the year he is implementing policies that destroy wetlands and other waters," said Joan Mulhern of the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "Trotting out a list of voluntary programs that already exist and calling them a new initiative ... is not going to wash with the American people."

Last December, the White House was pressured into withdrawing a proposal that would have relaxed protection for some 20 million acres of isolated wetlands in the wake of widespread criticism for the proposal from members of Congress, 39 states, hunting and fishing groups, and scientists.

But Bush has not rescinded policy guidance critics believe undermines protection of wetlands.

That guidance, issued in January 2003, orders the EPA and the Army Corps to not to require permits under the Clean Water Act for the pollution or destruction of wetlands that are located within a single state and are not associated with any navigable waterway.

"Until the administration cancels that directive, any presidential pledge to protect wetlands is a public relations ploy to cover up an abysmal environmental record," said Nancy Stoner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Water Project.

The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve, a partnership program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the coastal states. The reserve hosts about 45,000 visitors each year and includes 1,600 acres of diverse coastal northeast habitat types, beaches, dunes, salt marshes, open fields, forest, rivers, and fresh water wetlands.


Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Two wetlands restoration projects are underway at the Reserve. The Drakes Island community salt marsh project is restoring hydrology and enhancing 77 acres of salt marsh habitat, and received the Coastal America's Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership Award.

The Wheeler marsh restoration project improved 15 acres of salt marsh and intertidal mudflats through the partnership of the Town of York, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited.

“Today, President Bush outlined some very positive steps for our wetlands, which have suffered from continuing loss and degradation for centuries,” said Don Young, executive vice president of Ducks Unlimited. “At the same time, we have continuing concerns about the current state of wetland habitat across the continent."

"Wetland habitats of value to wildlife continue to be lost at the substantial rate of tens of thousands of acres every year," said Young. "Given those concerns, it is vitally important that conservation initiatives such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Wetlands Reserve Program receive substantial funding."

In several key meetings, officials with Ducks Unlimited have had the opportunity to meet face to face with the president and his staff to discuss conservation policy, said Young, stressing that "reasonable and sound regulations in addition to financial support and other incentives" are needed to protect and restore the nation’s wetlands.