Bush Highlights Volunteers' Role in Environmental Protection

NAPLES, Florida, April 26, 2004 (ENS) - President George W. Bush defended his environmental record this weekend and stressed the importance of volunteer conservation to his environmental policy. Bush told a Florida audience it is "really important for those of us in positions of responsibility to remind people that you cannot have good environmental stewardship if you rely solely on the federal government."

The federal government can help, Bush said in his speech Friday, "but we are the land of the mighty lawsuit."

"The best way to get things done is to be a helper and encourage people," Bush said.

The President, joined by his brother - Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush - spoke Friday at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 110,000 acre mangrove estuary located on the gulf coast of Florida adjacent to the Everglades.

Bush, who helped volunteers clear an invasive plant that threatens the reserve, called the area "a little slice of heaven."

Environmentalists saw more than a little irony in the President's choice of venues for his renewed defense of his environmental record and noted that volunteers, although critical to conservation, cannot enforce federal laws. Bush

President Bush used Earth Day to try and shore up support for his environmental policies. (Photo courtesy White House)
Three conservation groups filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging approval by the Bush administration's decision to approve Florida's request to remove 161 Florida waters from its required pollution clean-up list.

The waters removed from the list include 97 that are contaminated with mercury, the organizations say, a pollutant that is harming Rookery Bay.

"Fish in Rookery Bay are contaminated with mercury, posing a threat to the health of anyone who eats them," said Linda Young, southeast regional director for the Clean Water Network. "The state of Florida had done nothing to clean up the mercury, and EPA, which is required by law to step in when states shirk their duties, is sitting on its hands."

All of Florida's coastal waters and more than 100 of its rivers, streams, and lakes are under fish consumption advisories for mercury.

Bush's Florida speech came in the wake of a week of vocal criticism by national environmental groups, activists and Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry, all of whom used the celebration of Earth Day to bash the Bush environmental record, which they contend is the worst of any U.S. president.

But Bush, who spent much of Friday raising money for his reelection campaign, shrugged off such criticism.

"I know there is a lot of politics when it comes to the environment," he said. "But what I like to do is focus on results."

The President touted his support for the $8 billion cleanup of the Everglades and for buying out federal offshore oil and gas permits in Florida waters.

"There is no ambiguity in my position on drilling off the coast of Florida," said Bush, whose campaign has tried to paint Kerry as soft on this issue.

The President reiterated his new plan to restore, improve and protect some three million acres of wetlands over the next five years. Rookery

Rookery Bay is a critical spot for shorebirds. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"Across Florida, citizens understand that the wetlands are essential to a healthy, diverse environment and to the tourism and recreation that bring millions of visitors to your state every year," Bush said. "In other words, a good environment will help the tourism industry to continue to flourish."

The Bush wetlands plan focuses on providing federal incentives and grants to private landowners to implement the wetlands strategy. The President pledged to offer incentives to farmers to stop cultivating areas that were once wetlands, to expand a federal coastal wetlands protection and restoration program and to support efforts to remove invasive species from suffering wetlands.

"We have got to put programs in place that help Mother Nature," Bush said. "See, Mother Nature cannot do it itself. Mother Nature cannot retake the land unless there is a little help from us."

Environmentalists are skeptical of the new Bush wetlands plan and contend his administration has shown a hostile attitude toward wetlands protection.

"While this administration's stated commitment to no-net-loss of wetlands is encouraging, focusing only on wetland acres misses the point that maintaining wetland functions is equally important," said Julie Sibbing, wetlands policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation. "The administration's current policies, including a directive removing protection from an estimated 20 million acres of wetlands under the Clean Water Act, virtually guarantee that our country will continue to lose both wetland function and acreage."

Bush's defense of his environmental record carried through to his weekly radio address. The President used the address to praise his record on clean air, his cleanup of brownfields sites and his Healthy Forests plan.

"In the past three decades, America has made great strides in honoring the ideal of conservation, and living by high standards of stewardship," Bush said in his address, released Saturday. "My administration's environmental efforts uphold that legacy. In the past four years, America's air, land, and water have all gotten cleaner."


President George W. Bush talks with AmeriCorps volunteers. (Photo courtesy White House)
Critics of the President say he is misleading the public with such statements and taking credit for environmental improvements that have nothing to do with his policies.

"George Bush is not telling the truth when he says 'America's air, land, and water have all gotten cleaner' on his watch," Kerry Campaign Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen. "That is false."

The Kerry campaign note that Bush has eased requirements and deadlines for many states to meet stricter federal smog standards and criticize his plan for reducing mercury emissions as too lax.

Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund President Rodger Schlickeisen said Bush is the most "anti-conservation President this country has ever seen."

"It is the height of hypocrisy for him to even suggest that his policies are beneficial to the environment," said Schlickeisen.

As both Bush and Kerry scramble for the high ground on environmental issues, whether the environment will emerge as much an issue for voters in November is very much up for debate.

This year's Gallup Environmental Earth Day poll, released this month, finds Americans worry less about environmental issues than they did before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

But the poll suggested that Bush's environmental image has suffered somewhat, in particular during the past two years.

The data show a continued decline in the percentage of Americans saying that Bush is doing a good job of "protecting the nation's environment," with 46 percent of Americans saying the president is doing a "poor job" on environmental protection - compared to 41 percent who said he is doing a "good job."