George W. Bush photo

Remarks at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, Florida

April 23, 2004

Thank you all very much. Thanks for coming. Please be seated if you have a chair. If you don't have a chair, don't be seated. [Laughter] So yesterday I was in Wells, Maine, talking about the environment, and my mother showed up. [Laughter] So today I am in South Florida talking about the environment, and my brother shows up. [Laughter] And you all showed up. Thanks for coming. It's great to be here at the Rookery Bay Reserve. What a special place. I like to call it a little slice of heaven.

This week we observed Earth Day. And one way to honor the day is to honor those citizens in our country who understand the definition of stewardship, citizens who work to make sure that our environment is as clean as possible. And that's what we're here to do today.

It also happens to be National Volunteer Week. So, yes. And what is easy to understand is one of the reasons why the Rookery is such a place, is because of the volunteers who have come on a daily basis to make this a special place. My first task is to thank you for being such good stewards of Florida's natural beauty. Thank you for not only protecting it, but thank you for enhancing it. And a person who gets a lot of credit for that is my brother. Jeb has been a—[applause].

I spent some quality time with Gary Lytton, who is the director here, by the way. Gary, I want to thank you for your service. Gary is a joyful person—[laughter]—because he likes what he's doing, and he loves this part of the world. And it's clear that there's a great sense of ownership when you talk to Gary. Gary is interested in not only preserving beauty; he's interested in learning as much as possible to share the knowledge across our country.

He's also pretty good about lining up these volunteers and making sure they work. [Laughter] I said, "Does Gary keep you working?" He said, "You bet." [Laughter] That's good. That's called leadership. But Gary, thanks for what you're doing. He tells me that much of the property bought here is a result of the bonding issue that Jeb pushed to make sure that much of the great State of Florida is protected and preserved throughout the years to come. 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 you've got yourself a results-oriented Governor when it comes to protecting this environment.

And I know Colleen is doing good work. Good to see you again, Colleen. Thanks for coming out to say hello.

We traveled down from Washington with two Members of the United States Congress. First, from down the road and kind of over would be Mario Diaz-Balart. Where are you, Mario? Thank you. I appreciate you coming. And finally, a person who has earned a great reputation on a variety of fronts, one as a strong believer and supporter of national security and the intelligence gathering services of our country but also a man who has got a fantastic reputation for being careful and thoughtful about the environment here on the west coast of Florida, and that's Porter Goss. Thank you, Porter.

I want to thank the mayor who is here, Mayor Bill Barnett. Where are you, Mayor? Yes, thank you, buddy. Thanks for coming. I'm proud you're here. My only advice is to make sure you empty the garbage on a regular basis—[laughter]—maybe fill a pothole or two. [Laughter] But thanks for coming. I think I'd rather be President than mayor. At least my phone number isn't in the phonebook. [Laughter]

I appreciate all the other local officials who are here. I know you care as much as the mayor does and Porter does about making sure the environment is strong, the protection process is in place so that our natural beauty can be enhanced as this part of the world becomes more populated.

I want to thank David Eisner, who is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Thank you for coming, David. I see David. Appreciate you coming. David is in charge of a lot of important programs, one of which is AmeriCorps. I'm a strong believer in AmeriCorps.

I want to thank the—where are my AmeriCorps buddies? There they are. Did you change shirts? [Laughter] You look too pretty. [Laughter] I was out there watching them help get rid of the invasees—invasive grasses and species that is threatening the watersheds and threatening the wetlands. They're doing good work. These are good kids from around the country who are dedicating time to help America, whether it be teaching kids how to read and write, add and subtract or out here in the hinterlands of South Florida, protecting the environment. It's really neat to be with you all. I want to thank you for your service, thank you for your hard work, and may God continue to bless you and your families as you pursue your dreams.

As Jeb mentioned, my administration is committed to conserving Florida's natural beauty. In January 2002, I joined your Governor in signing an important agreement. In order to make sure enough fresh water would go to the Everglades, the Federal Government and the State agreed to install large pumps and build canals and large freshwater storage areas. In other words, my administration recognized the importance of the Everglades to not only the State of Florida but to our country, and we will continue to work with Jeb and the State to make sure the Everglades is vibrant, alive, and available for future generations of Americans.

In 2002, the Federal Government bought back the rights to oil and gas development in parts of the Everglades and in the Destin Dome area offshore from Pensacola. This action helped to protect the Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As you can see, there is no ambiguity in my position on drilling off the coast of Florida.

We have done more. Working with community leaders, this State and the Federal Government in 2001 established the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, a 200-square-mile area west of the Florida Keys. This is one of the largest protected marine areas in America. This preserve of coral reefs and sea grasses is home to countless species of fish and wildlife, and protecting it was vital to the future, as we allow the public to enjoy its beauty.

Now, we've been working with the State of Florida. We've been working hard because we share a common goal to conserve our environment, to do our duty as stewards of this beautiful part of the world.

Here at Rookery Bay, you see how important wetlands are to protecting 150 species of birds and many threatened and endangered animals. Across Florida, citizens understand that the wetlands are essential to a healthy, diverse environment and to the tourism and recreation that bring millions of visitors to your State every year. In other words, a good environment will help the tourism industry to continue to flourish. The two go hand in hand. Many people of Florida understand that dynamic. I certainly understand it as well.

Of all the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 States, 20 percent are right here in Florida. This is a legacy we need to protect and pass along. And so, today I want to talk about how the Government can do its part—that is, the Federal Government.

Yesterday in Maine, I announced an ambitious national goal. First of all, I don't set goals unless I think we can meet them, and this is an ambitious goal that we can meet. For years, our Nation has sought to slow the loss of wetlands. Now I believe we must change that goal to one that says, "We'll have an overall increase in wetlands every year. Instead of just reducing loss, the goal of this country must be to increase wetlands."

To accomplish this objective, my administration will work to restore, to improve, and to protect at least 3 million acres of wetlands over the next 5 years. First part of the strategy is to restore at least one million acres of wetlands that do not exist today. Through expanded incentive and partnership measures such as the Department of Agriculture's Wetland Reserve Program, and through new grants under the Interior Department's North American Wetlands Conservation Act, we can expand wetlands. By the way, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Jeb, was signed by Dad.

The idea is to provide incentives and grant money to allow wetlands to return where they once existed. And it's possible to do so. It's very feasible to do so. We can provide incentives, for example, to farmers and ranchers to stop cultivating areas that were once wetlands, and we will do just that. This is a commonsense way of expanding the wetlands across America.

Secondly, we will improve the quality of another million acres of existing wetlands through expanded public-private efforts such as the Interior Department's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, as well as the use of NOAA's Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Program.

Before I—I'm going to expand on that— I do want to thank the NOAA folks who are here. I'm proud you're here. Thank you for your good work. Yes, I saw you over there. I thought for a minute it said NCAA, then I realized it said NOAA. [Laughter] I also want to thank the folks who work for the Ag Department who are here, and I want to thank the folks who work for the Interior Department who are here. Thank you for being openminded as you work in a collaborative way with State and local government.

You see, too many wetlands are degraded and can no longer support healthy wildlife populations. So they need to be restored, and that's what this aspect of the strategy will do. That's what's happening back over here. These plants invaded, these non-natives came, and they're making it difficult for the wetlands to flourish. And so we've got to put programs in place that help Mother Nature. See, Mother Nature can't do it itself. Mother Nature can't retake the land unless there's a little help from us. And so the second phase is to make sure the wetlands that have been degraded are revitalized and restored.

The Everglades is a great wetlands area. So you hear me talking about wetlands, think Everglades, as well as other parts of this State. The problem in the Everglades—one of the problems has been that nonnative plants have invaded. And so one of the things we're going to do is encourage programs that will remove the invasive species, to allow the native vegetation to return. It sounds simple, but it's hard work, and it requires Federal Government support. And I'm willing to dedicate that support because I understand how important wetlands are.

Third, we'll protect an additional one million acres of wetlands that are currently at risk by increasing grants for land protection programs and by making it easier for farmers and other landowners to participate in these programs. We'll encourage landowners to place easements on their wetlands—on the wetland portion of their property. That'll help migratory birds find nesting areas. That'll be good for the ducks. That'll be good for other birds that are traveling long distances in their winter— on their winter flights.

It is vital that there be good education, but it's vital that there also be good incentive programs to remind landowners about a responsibility that they have and the capacity to make a difference in the wildlife of our country. Some people need to be reminded—one of my favorite phrases: If you own your own farm or ranch, every day is Earth Day, by the way.

Laura and I are doing our bit by restoring natural grasses to our ranch. She wants to become a Little Blue Stem grass seed distributor so that others will grow native grasses. It's amazing what happens when we restored our little part of heaven to native grasses. Bobwhite quail are returning. Birds are showing up that we hadn't seen before. It's a fantastic experience. It's the same thing you are doing here, and it's the same concept we've got to do to encourage others who own their land, to understand the incredible opportunity they have to make a vital contribution to the wetlands of our country and to the environmental prosperity of our country as well.

To meet the goal of wetland expansion, we've got to commit money, of course. You just can't lay out a goal unless they're willing to support, and my administration is prepared to do so, as I said. We did a good thing in the farm bill, the 2002 farm bill, which is still in place. One of the most important aspects of the farm bill was the conservation title. It was a strong expansion of Federal money available to encourage farmers to expand areas on their farms, like wetlands. It is an important part of meeting this national goal.

As well I'm sending a budget up to Congress—or have sent a budget up to Congress for 2005 that proposes a $349 million expenditures on two key wetlands programs, which, by the way, is an increase of 50 percent since 2001. In other words, we're going to help people restore wetlands. It's in our national interest we do so, and it's an important priority that we get it done.

Citizens have an important part—a role to play in this as well, and that's—it's really important for those of us in positions of responsibility to remind people that you can't have good environmental stewardship if you rely solely on the Federal Government. I mean, the Federal Government can help, but we're the land of the mighty lawsuit. [Laughter] There's all kinds of lawsuits up there. The best way to get things done is to be a helper and encourage people, just like he's doing here. I mean, this is a good example. It's why we came here: It's working. We came here to herald what's possible when all levels of government and local citizens decide to make a difference in the community in which they live.

And so today when I landed, in order to send a clear signal about how important voluntarism is, I presented the President's Volunteer Service Award to Neala Hoch. Where are you, Neala? Oh, there you are. Thanks. Thanks for coming. She's taken time out of her life to be involved with Keep America Beautiful and its affiliates, for 20 years. She's a citizen who deserves our thanks, just like many of you all do.

You know, they talk about America's strength a lot of times, and they say, "Well, America is strong because of our military." And by the way, I intend to keep the military strong to keep the peace. Or they say, "We're strong because we're prosperous." And we're getting prosperous, and we need to be even more prosperous, and I think we will be. But the real strength is in the hearts and souls of our citizens. That's where our true strength is. That's why we're a strong nation.

And it happens—and that strength is displayed here, or it's displayed when somebody says to someone, "I love you. What can I do to help you?" It's displayed when people feed the hungry. It's displayed when people provide shelter to the homeless. The great strength of America is displayed when somebody mentors a child. That's the strength of the country. And the best way that happens is when volunteers step up and say, "I care about the community in which I live, and I intend to do something about it."

And so today, at National Volunteer Week, I want to thank a member of the army of compassion and all the rest of you who are soldiers in the armies of compassion. I want to thank you for what you do to make America a better place.

And by the way, if you're interested in volunteering, I've set up what's called USA Freedom Corps. It's a clearinghouse for projects—yes, there you go. It's a clearinghouse for—a place where people can find—to match their desires with what is needed in the communities all across America. You can find it at See, all you got to do is get on this web page, and it will link you up to different opportunities, whether it be Scouting or whether it be environmental protection. There's all kinds of opportunities across the country just asking for your help.

So on National Volunteer Week, I call upon our fellow citizens to serve our country by helping somebody in need. And by doing so, this society will change, one heart and one soul at a time. No, the strength of this country is the fact that we're a nation full of compassionate, decent, honorable, loving citizens. And it is my honor to be the President of such a country.

May God bless you, and may God continue to bless America.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:44 a.m. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida; Gary Lytton, director, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve; Colleen M. Castille, secretary, Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and Mayor Bill Barnett of Naples, FL. The National Volunteer Week proclamation of April 16 is listed in Appendix D at the end of this volume.

George W. Bush, Remarks at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, Florida Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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