Will the Everglades Turn Bush Green?

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Bush tours the Everglades National Park

President Bush swatted away pesky mosquitoes Monday as he spoke to a crowd gathered in the muggy and endangered Florida Everglades. Unfortunately for the businessman recently turned "new environmentalist," his critics won’t be as easy to dismiss.

Hoping to quell criticism

Bush was visiting the Everglades to name a new National Park Service director, Fran Mainella, the longtime head of Florida’s parks, and to tout his commitment to protecting what he called "a slice of heaven." He spoke to about 100 park employees, giving details of his 2002 budget, which includes $219 million for Everglades restoration — $58 million more than this year, according to the White House.

But establishing his environmental bona fides in Florida won't be easy, especially since W faces a brewing battle with local politicians (including brother Jeb) over his recent order to allow the auctioning of oil drilling sites on the eastern Gulf of Mexico, just 30 miles off the Florida panhandle.

Still not making any friends at Greenpeace

And so, environmentalists had a cool response to Bush’s comments. "This is a big photo opportunity. It's designed to make Bush look like an environmentalist, when all he's shown is a propensity to harm America's wetlands," Jonathan Ullman, spokesman for the Sierra Club of South Florida told the Associated Press. And while the Bush White House is not likely to care much about the likes of Ullman, staffers are concerned that months of bad press from environmentalists could scar the President’s image in the public at large.

Since its first days, the Bush White House has elicited shouts of protest from environmental activists, who complain the President is looking out for business interests at the expense of the nation’s natural resources. Bush has raised a skeptical eyebrow at many of his predecessor’s sweeping, last minute edicts aimed at protecting national wildlife and parklands — and has indicated he is open to the idea of drilling in Alaska and Florida’s protected lands. He has also weathered protest over his willingness to loosen arsenic standards in drinking water.

Now, amidst a growing tide of criticism from moderate, suburban voters (who worry about the quality of their children’s drinking water) and tree-huggers alike, the Bush White House faces a tough balancing act: Reassure voters that this administration is not out to mow down the country’s green spaces just to please big business while simultaneously assuring big business that Bush knows exactly how important they are.