NAPLES, Fla. – President Bush (search) said Friday he is a committed conservationist who will safeguard the nation's natural treasures, rejecting criticism that his administration has harmed the environment.
"I know there's a lot of politics when it comes to the environment, but what I like to do is focus on ... results" and "I am committed to preserving Florida's natural beauty," Bush told an audience of several hundred supporters at the environmentally sensitive Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve (search) on the Gulf Coast adjacent to the Everglades.
The president also cited his administration's decision to buy back oil and gas drilling rights off the Florida coast, declaring: "There is no ambiguity in my position on drilling off the coast of Florida."
The president made the comments after he and his brother Jeb, Florida's governor, chopped down invasive species of plants that are harming the state's lush wetlands. The president jokingly menaced reporters with a large pair of pruning shears before using them on the undergrowth.
Bush defended his record in the 21st trip of his presidency to Florida, where he also is headlining two fund-raising events in Naples and Coral Gables.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) says Bush has taken pro-industry stands at the expense of the environment by easing pollution controls on power plants and opening public lands to oil and gas exploration. Bush's policies also could lead to more development of the nation's wetlands, Kerry and environmental groups argue.
Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox said Bush "is going to have a difficult time presenting himself and Dick Cheney as environmentalists since they were both candidates brought to us by Halliburton and big oil."
Hundreds of people lined the streets along Bush's motorcade route into the Rookery Bay reserve. Many were supportive but about 100 gathered near the entrance, carrying signs denouncing Bush policies on the environment and on Iraq.
Bush and his brother Jeb were working to remove non-native species from the reserve, including Australia Pine and Brazilian Pepper. Volunteers have already restored 2,000 acres and are aiming to restore 2,000 more, according to James Connaughton, head of the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality.
Removing the invasive species will increase sea turtle nesting habitats and stabilize beaches here on the West coast of the state, Connaughton said. The area has been mapped by satellites, which helps identify the invasive species, Connaughton said.
On the fund-raising front, Bush's two events in Florida are the latest installments in a drive that began two months ago with the president, first lady Laura Bush and Vice President Cheney bringing in more than $10 million to the Republican Party's Victory 2004 fund.
The president's own re-election campaign has taken in a record $180 million-plus. The Victory 2004 money is for get-out-the-vote drives.
Underscoring the importance of the state that decided the 2000 election, Bush's visit with an environmental theme follows two trips to the state in March, for a campaign kickoff rally in Orlando and NASCAR's Daytona 500.
On Thursday, the anniversary of Earth Day, Bush toured a nature reserve in Maine with his mother and promised to restore or protect as much as 3 million acres of wetlands in the next five years.
Kerry marked the occasion in Houston, ending a three-day focus on the environment. He accused Bush of "playing the smoke-and-mirrors game" by talking about wetlands conservation.