Bush promises effort to safeguard wetlands

He wants to create or save 3 million acres

April 24, 2004|By Maya Bell | Maya Bell,ORLANDO SENTINEL

MIAMI - Seeking to highlight his commitment to the environment, President Bush returned to the vital swing state of Florida yesterday with a promise to create or safeguard at least 3 million acres of wetlands across the nation.

With his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at his side, the president also managed to squeeze in two fund-raisers on two Florida coasts, hauling in $4.4 million for the national Republican Party.

Stopping first at the Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve near Naples, Bush promised an appreciative crowd he would preserve Florida's natural beauty. As evidence, he pointed to the $8 billion-plus federal-state plan to restore the Everglades and the administration's buyback of gas and oil drilling leases in parts of the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola.

"I know there's a lot of politics when it comes to the environment, but what I like to do is focus on results," Bush said. "As you can see, there is no ambiguity in my position on drilling off the coast of Florida."

He also expanded on an Earth Day pledge he made in Maine on Thursday, saying federal agencies would offer incentives and public-private partnerships to restore 1 million acres of now extinct wetlands, improve the quality of another 1 million existing acres and protect a third million at-risk acres over the next five years.

Bush's remarks and picture-perfect photo opportunity came during his 21st trip to Florida since his disputed 2000 election and on the heels of Democratic rival John Kerry's swing through the state earlier in the week, when the Massachusetts senator raised $5 million. The president's remarks drew immediate criticism from the Kerry camp and a bevy of environmentalists.

Carol Browner, a former environmental chief both in Florida and under the Clinton Administration, said she was "stunned" the president was promising wetlands restoration, given his dismal record on the issue.

She said that his administration had stopped enforcing permitting requirements on seasonal wetlands, jeopardizing 50 percent of the remaining wetlands in California alone. She also called the administration's buyback of drilling leases a "windfall" for oil companies who collected their money without undergoing the review process to determine if their leases were even viable.

"It really is an example of what this administration does on environmental policy," Browner said in a conference call arranged by the Kerry campaign. "They have a pretty picture. They give a nice speech. The rhetoric pushes all the right buttons, but the reality is simply not there."

After leaving the reserve, Bush spent the afternoon and evening raising money for the Republican National Committee's Victory 2004 fund, which will help GOP candidates and get-out-the vote initiatives.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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