EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. - In a continuing campaign to show that he is devoted to the environment, President Bush stood at the edge of an alligator-filled river in Florida's Everglades yesterday and declared that his administration supports efforts to restore the sensitive wetlands.
Against a backdrop indicative of the riches of nature and with a group of park rangers standing beside him, Bush blended in, wearing an open-collared tan shirt and seeming delighted with the setting. As if on cue, gators occasionally bobbed their heads out of the water as the president spoke of the Everglades as "a beautiful slice of heaven."
"Growth and progress are desirable," Bush said. "And environmental destruction is not inevitable. We must build and plan with respect for nature's claims."
The Everglades visit occurred five days after Bush, sporting a green National Park Service jacket, marveled over a 2,000-year-old sequoia in California, proclaiming: "Had Christ himself stood on this spot, he would have been in the shade of this very tree."
In recent months, Bush has angered environmentalists by rejecting a treaty to reduce global warming, suspending new limits on arsenic in drinking water and breaking a vow to cut carbon dioxide emissions by power plants. And the energy policy he unveiled last month would ease curbs on drilling for oil and gas on public lands.
Now, White House officials are carefully selecting backdrops they hope will draw attention away from some of Bush's more contentious proposals. And because the White House is highlighting proposals that face little or no opposition, Bush has had to expend little political capital on these visits.
In California, for example, the president promoted a plan to repair roads, trails, visitor centers and other parts of national parks.
Yesterday, Bush pledged $219 million next year toward restoring the Everglades. The project was approved by Congress last year, and Bush had already included the money in his budget.
Whether Bush can deflect criticism of his environmental policies by visiting such pristine sites to pronounce himself committed to the environment could prove to be a crucial test of the administration.
Some environmentalists say they are annoyed by what they see as political theatrics.
"This is him trying to put on a green coat," said Gerry Swormstedt, chairman of the Sierra Club's Florida chapter. "His positions on the environment have not been good so far. We want the true picture to show through. I don't think this fools anybody."
But Karen P. Hughes, the counselor to the president, argues that Bush has been mischaracterized as an enemy of the environment.
"It does not reflect his true position," Hughes said yesterday. "He has a long record and a history as a rancher himself and a supporter of clean air and clean water."
For example, Hughes said, Bush has put in place "responsible environmental policies" at his 1,600-acre ranch in Texas. "He has installed a very environmentally friendly heating and cooling system, and he has put in place a system to recapture groundwater," she said.
In fact, Bush acquired his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 1999, and construction of the house was completed this year.
Protecting the environment is an issue important to many swing and female voters, and the public appears ambivalent so far about Bush's performance. A recent CNN-Time poll found that 43 percent of respondents thought that Bush is doing a poor job of protecting the environment, while 42 percent said he is doing a good job.
In the face of criticism, the president's allies insist that his devotion to the environment is genuine. And anyway, they argue, it is not outspoken environmental groups but rather swing voters and moderates in Congress that Bush is seeking to win over with his conservation-oriented appearances.
"Even the liberals know the environmental extremists have gone too far - it is the moderates he has to convince," said Tom Korologos, a longtime Republican lobbyist.
Bush "has not been considered an environmentalist from Day 1, and never mind he hasn't done anything since" to alter that perception, Korologos added. "But he's trying to show he is not as bad as everyone says he is."
Yesterday's trip was the first time that Bush has ventured into South Florida since the disputed presidential election, in which the Florida vote was decisive. Bush previously made brief visits to conservative sections of the Panhandle and to Orlando, areas that did not witness the level of outrage over vote recounts that erupted in South Florida. It is his first overnight trip to Florida as president.
Bush later flew to Tampa for a rally where he celebrated passage of his tax cut. Today, he is scheduled to help Habitat for Humanity volunteers build a house before returning to Washington.
The president noted that the Everglades, with its combination of fresh and salt waters, is "the only place on Earth where crocodiles and alligators live side by side."