After six years in the Oval Office, US President George W. Bush may have found his inner Teddy Roosevelt.
At a time when his policies on global warming are under intense scrutiny from environmentalists, Bush this week cloaked himself in another environmental issue: conservation. He used his budget, and his bully pulpit, to announce a 10-year, US$1 billion commitment in taxpayer money to enhance national parks, which have been limping along with limited funds.
Most environmentalists would not use the names George W. Bush and Theodore Roosevelt in the same sentence, unless making an invidious comparison. Roosevelt, of course, created a collection of national preserves that helped form the foundation of the current park system.
Bush, his detractors say, has let the national parks slide into decline -- until now.
"This is real," said Bill Wade, a former park superintendent and persistent critic of the administration's policies on parks. "There's a lot more focus in this budget for the operational funding that parks need."
The turnaround came at the urging of Dirk Kempthorne, the former Idaho governor who is Bush's new secretary of the interior. Two years ago, when Kempthorne was still governor, he and his wife spent two days with the president and Laura Bush, fishing, hiking and cycling in the Idaho outdoors.
"I saw up close and personal what the outdoors meant to this couple," the secretary said in an interview on Wednesday.
Once he became interior secretary, he said, he told the president that the 90th anniversary of the parks system last year should prompt planning for the centennial.
Kempthorne recalled saying: "Let's not just light a candle for the one day of the 90th. The centennial needs to be spectacular."
Last Wednesday, the two men and Laura Bush traveled to Shenandoah National Park, 120km west of Washington, to talk to private supporters of the parks about the new twist in their initiative: a challenge to the private sector to raise an additional US$1 billion for park enhancement, which the government would match dollar for dollar for a maximum US$3 billion at the end of 10 years.
With attendance at national parks declining, recreation companies said the initiative makes business sense.
"It's good business and it's good policy," said Gary Kiedaisch, president and chief executive of the Coleman Co, a leading manufacturer of camping equipment.
In an interview after appearing with Bush last Wednesday, he said his company had not "put actual hard dollars down" but would support the initiative.
The initiative comes less than a year after Bush offered another gift to environmentalists, by creating a marine reserve in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
"We're quite enthusiastic about it," said Gene Sykes, chairman of the board of trustees of the National Parks Conservation Association, who participated in Wednesday's event.
That enthusiasm, however, has yet to infect critics of Bush's environmental record. Despite the praise for its effort on parks, the administration found itself on the defensive on Wednesday -- so much so that the White House felt compelled to issue an "open letter on the president's position on climate change."
In the letter, Bush's top science and environmental advisers challenged news media reports that suggest the president's concern about climate change is new.
"Beginning in June 2001," they wrote, "President Bush has consistently acknowledged climate change is occurring and humans are contributing to the problem."
The letter cited a June 2001 statement in which Bush quoted the National Academy of Sciences saying an increase in the earth's temperature was "due in large part to human activity." But it failed to finish the quotation, in which the president went on to say it was unclear how much "natural fluctuations in climate" played a role, whether further climate change was inevitable and what, if anything, could be done about it.
The issue came up at the daily press briefing, where Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, insisted there was nothing new, either about the president's commitment to parks or recognition of global warming.
"There's been a lot of misreporting," he said. "Perhaps folks have not taken notice of the fact that this is an administration that's been keenly committed, both to environmentalism and conservationism from the start."
At the suggestion Bush was awakening to the environment, Snow said it was reporters who were waking up.
"The long national slumber," he said, "may be approaching an end."
But Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, a group that has conducted assiduous and unfriendly analyses of the administration's environmental record, had a slightly different take.
"When presidents come to the end of their terms, they always look for great places to save," Clapp said, adding, "As for the rest of President Bush's environmental record, I'm still snoring."
One person who is not snoring is Kempthorne, who has a statue of Roosevelt in his office at the Interior Department, a constant reminder of the 26th president's commitment to conservation. At Shenandoah on Wednesday, he invoked a comparison between the Roosevelt and Bush.
Turning to his boss, he said, "I think Theodore Roosevelt would be very proud of you."
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