Bush Presses Environmental Agenda

President Bush, eager to tout his commitment to protecting the environment, toured the towering trees and stark granite peaks here Wednesday as he promoted initiatives to spruce up the national parks.

Bush was announcing a new directive calling for annual reviews of each national park by rangers, and renewing his call for a five-year, $5 billion effort to address a heavy maintenance backlog.

"Often people go to these parks and there are lines to get in, there's no parking nearby once they get there, they're too crowded, they're overrun, the beautiful conditions are not being maintained," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Bush's five-year plan is "overdue," he said.

Before his address, the president hiked for about 20 minutes to the summit of Moro Rock, a 6,500-foot barren granite dome. He marveled at the 1,300-feet peaks to the east and the sprawling central valley of California to the west.

Walking gingerly toward the edge a cliff, the president told reporters, "It's something else up here, isn't it? I'm impressed you guys made it."

He also stopped at the General Sherman Tree, a sequoia thought to be one of the largest living things on earth.

The president has faced criticism about the environmental impacts of some of his policies, most recently when he issued his national energy strategy, which called for an emphasis on developing additional oil sources and more coal and nuclear power.

Advisers said Bush has long planned to unveil a series of initiatives that reflect his deep concern for natural resources. He is planning a trip to Florida's Everglades next week.

On Tuesday, the administration announced it will let stand a proposal approved in the last days of the Clinton presidency to clean up hazy skies over national parks and wilderness areas. It would require older coal-fired utilities, among others, to be retrofitted with new pollution-control technology by 2013.

Bush made an arduous trip Tuesday from Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park, which is about 100 miles south of Yosemite National Park. He flew from Los Angeles to Fresno, helicoptered to the Sierra Nevada foothills, then was driven nearly two hours up switchbacking roads to a lodge at 7,200 feet.

He became the first sitting president to visit the park, which is home to the largest living tree on earth, said Sequoia park spokeswoman Kris Fister. His entourage practically took over the remote complex of cabins, with Secret Service agents posted outside Bush's lodge staring into the forest.

While Sequoia National Park does not have a desperate maintenance backlog, there are trails and roads here in disrepair, she said. The park is completing a $74 million renovation that built a new lodge and removed some 300 structures that threatened the giant sequoias.

The project "shows what can be accomplished" with an infusion of federal money, Fister said.

A wide array of maintenance issues plague the 57 national parks and 327 other natural and historic sites that make up the national park system.

They include deficient guardrails on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, a failing water line at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and an overburdened sewage system in Yellowstone National Park.

The White House provided for no new park acquisitions in its budget request to Congress this year. Instead, the Interior Department was told to focus on President Bush's campaign promise to clear up a $4.9 billion backlog of park maintenance and repairs.

Bush sent Congress a proposal last month to pay for a portion of his pledge - $439.6 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.