While youngsters fished from drifting speedboats on a nearby pond, President Bush pledged Thursday to spend nearly $1 billion on one of the nation's premier conservation programs.
Bush said that after years in which the Land and Water Conservation Fund received less than its fully authorized amount, "that practice will stop," and, if his budget is approved, it will get the full $900 million authorized for it.
Bush spoke near the water's edge in a pine grove in Oak Mountain State Park with about 100 invited guests, including children from a YMCA camp arrayed on hay bales before him.
It was his third trip to a park in barely as many weeks, a campaign in which he seeks to bolster his credentials as a friend of the environment.
At issue Thursday was not just money devoted to the Land and Water Conservation Fund but also the fate of the range of government programs dedicated to preserving parks and other undeveloped land.
Bush said the full funding for the conservation program is important because "it's a high environmental priority for me," and because half the money goes to the states without Washington's directions on how it will be spent.
"I believe the good people of Alabama care a lot about the resources in Alabama," he said.
But critics say that while finding the money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Bush has shifted money from other conservation programs, eliminating $100 million in grants to state wildlife efforts and reducing the $329 million spent this year on several other wetland and woods programs to $137 million next year.
The president's approach--embracing the least controversial environmental policies--amounts to "skimming the easy stuff off the top," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
The White House says that Bush has sought a 5% increase in the total federal budget for conservation, bringing the spending to $1.54 billion.
But Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, presented Bush's plan as a "bait and switch" that did not include cuts in some programs.
The state park Bush visited Thursday was a convenient detour. While in Birmingham, he was the draw later in the day at a party that raised $1.6 million for Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican. Later, he was flying to Texas for an extended weekend visit at his ranch.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has had bipartisan support in recent years, was established in 1964. It uses royalties from oil and gas drilling to protect undeveloped land, often by purchasing privately held land within the boundaries of national parks and forests, and to help states conserve land and create recreation areas.
The federal government matches dollar for dollar a state's contributions for parks and recreation property. This part of the program, for which Bush is asking $450 million, received $90 million last year.
Support for such programs, said Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs of the National Parks Conservation Assn., "makes Bush's agenda of energy development easier to sell [because] he says 'I'm for conservation too.' "
But Sue Gunn, who tracks budget and appropriation issues for the Wilderness Society, said such sudden generosity has the potential to undermine the program. This is because the states may not be prepared to match the funds, raising questions about whether it would be offered again. And if they do, their use of the money for such recreation facilities as golf courses and swimming pools--allowable under the grants' provisions--could appear antithetical to conservation goals.
"There are real needs, but do we want to send it all into recreation programs?" she asked.
When Bush visited Sequoia National Park last month, he promoted his plan to catch up on in the national parks. There was no attention devoted to one of the national park system's most pressing problems: air pollution creeping in from industrial sites often hundreds of miles away.
In the Everglades a week later, his focus was a program to restore farmed lands to a natural state. But he made no reference to controversy over a plan to build an international airport on the edge of the subtropical wilderness.
Some of the most pressing conservation issues involve whether to build roads in wilderness areas--an administration answer may be coming within a week--and how to protect untrammeled areas from encroaching commercial and residential development.