Published January 14, 2015
Taking a turn from his typical re-election selling points, President Bush (search) celebrated Earth Day on Thursday by calling for the restoration and protection of as many as 3 million acres of wetlands over the next five years.
Bush went to a nature reserve in Maine to highlight efforts to help wetlands (search). He also announced new figures Thursday from the Agriculture Department that he says show that, for the first time in the nation's history, the annual net loss of wetlands on farmland has been reversed.
The government has estimated that wetlands overall are being lost at the rate of 100,000 acres a year, down from 500,000 acres per year a few years ago.
"We have responsibilities to the natural world to conserve what we have and to make it better, that's the call of Earth Day (search)," Bush said, announcing the new policy. "Instead of just limiting our losses, we will expand the wetlands of America."
Bush called for at least 1 million acres of wetlands to be restored and created, 1 million acres to be improved and 1 million acres to be protected over the next five years.
Bush said that wetlands not only provide a home to thousands of species of wildlife, they "help to clean the water as well. They reduce the impact of floods. Wetlands stabilize shore areas," he said. He also said wetlands provide activities for American outdoorsmen who want to appreciate the birds and fish.
Bush said the United States has made a lot of environmental progress since the first Earth Day 34 years ago. He said his administration has contributed to that effort by cleaning up brownfields and phosphorous pollution and strengthening clean air and water regulations.
"My administration has put in place some of the most important anti-pollution policies in decades," he said. "Since 2001, the condition of America's land, air and water has improved."
But opponents of the administration's policies, which they say are industry-friendly, say it has not done enough to protect the environment.
The League of Conservation Voters (search) on Thursday pointed to the mercury pollution caused by power plants and accused the president of bowing to the influence of campaign donors who are lobbyists and executives in the utility industry.
"In fact, the Bush EPA's proposed mercury rule was written by a revolving door utility industry lobbyist -- sections of it verbatim from industry memos," said Mark Longabaugh, LCV senior vice president for political affairs.
Democratic members on Capitol Hill also barraged the administration with criticism on its environmental policies and accused the president of falling prey to polluters.
"GOP used to stand for Grand Ole Party, now it stands for Gang of Polluters or the Gas and Oil Party," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who has been promoting conservation and other environmental priorities for the last three days, says Bush's industry-backed policies are contributing to more air and water pollution.
"In three short years, this president has put the brakes on 30 years of environmental progress," said Kerry, who is spending Earth Day in Houston.
But former Bush Environmental Protection Agency (search) administrator Christine Todd Whitman shot back, issuing a statement in which she said, "Kerry's silence was notable when the Clinton administration failed to act on mercury emissions from power plants."
She also credited the president's Clear Skies (search) proposal for taking the most aggressive approach "in history to reduce power plant emissions," including a cap on mercury emissions.
"Kerry calls the environment a top priority, yet he missed the vote on Healthy Forests legislation. Kerry also blocked the president's Energy Bill, which included a provision to phase out MTBE use and increased funding for renewable energy," Whitman said.
Maine is one 17 swing states in which Bush and Kerry are fighting hardest for votes. While at the national estuarine research reserve (search) in Wells, Maine, the president took part in a water quality testing project. The reserve has 1,600 acres of coastal wetlands.
Bush also drew attention to the reserve's several hundred volunteers and its blend of public and private resources that were drawn upon to help protect fields, forests, salt marshes and beaches along Maine's more densely populated southern coast.
The reserve is sandwiched between the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and the Laudholm Farm, which was settled by English colonists in the mid-17th century and later preserved through private efforts.
In December, Bush abandoned a plan that could have further reduced wetlands protections by scaling back the Clean Water Act's (search) coverage of isolated ponds and streams, many of them dry for part of the year.
His administration also has said that projects no longer have to restore wetlands acre-for-acre if the "no net loss" goal is met for each of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (search) 38 U.S. districts, which are formed by watersheds and not state boundaries.
Benjamin Grumbles, acting head of EPA's Office of Water, said Wednesday that speeding up "progress in watershed and water quality protections, and doing it in a collaborative way in public-private partnerships, is a major priority for this administration."
Fox News' Sharon Kehnemui and Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.