PRESIDENT presses environmental agenda among giant trees

Wednesday, May 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) _ President Bush, eager to answer critics of his environmental record, toured the towering, ancient sequoia trees here Wednesday and promised to protect ``these works of God'' for the ages.

Standing in front of an ancient tree, the president said, ``Only man is capable of cutting down a sequoia. Only man is fully capable of appreciating its beauty.''

Bush announced a new directive calling for rangers to conduct annual reviews of each national park, and he renewed his call for a five-year, $5 billion effort to address a heavy maintenance backlog. He also cited a string of administration initiatives he said would protect the nation's air, water and land.

The president has been criticized regarding the environmental impacts of some of his policies, most recently when he issued a national energy strategy that placed emphasis on developing new oil sources and more coal and nuclear power.

With polls showing voters skeptical of his commitment to the environment, advisers say Bush plans a series of trips and events that reflect his deep concern for natural resources. He is scheduled to announce new protections for Florida's Everglades during a trip there next Monday and Tuesday.

``Our duty is to use the land well and sometimes not to use it at all,'' said Bush, dressed in cowboy boots and casual clothes.

Before his speech to about 130 park service employees and their families, the president hiked for about 20 minutes to the summit of Moro Rock, a 6,500-foot barren granite dome. He marveled at the 13,000-foot peaks to the east and California's sprawling central valley to the west.

Walking gingerly toward the edge a cliff, the president told reporters, ``It's something else up here, isn't it? I'm impressed you guys made it.''

Accompanied by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the president also stopped at the General Sherman Tree, a sequoia thought to be one of the largest living things on earth, estimated at more than 2,100 years old.

``We cannot see into the centuries ahead, but we can be sure in a place like this that we're in the presence of enduring things. It will be to our lasting credit if these works of God are still standing a thousand years from now,'' Bush said.

On Tuesday, the administration announced it will let stand a proposal approved in the last days of the Clinton presidency to clean up hazy skies over national parks and wilderness areas. It would require older coal-fired utilities, among others, to be retrofitted with new pollution-control technology by 2013.

Bush made an arduous trip Tuesday from Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park, about 100 miles south of Yosemite National Park. He flew from Los Angeles to Fresno, helicoptered to the Sierra Nevada foothills, then was driven nearly two hours up switchbacking roads to a lodge at 7,200 feet.

He became the first sitting president to visit the park, which is home to the largest living tree on earth, said Sequoia park spokeswoman Kris Fister. His entourage practically took over the remote complex of cabins, with Secret Service agents posted outside Bush's lodge, staring into the forest.

While Sequoia National Park does not have a desperate maintenance backlog, there are trails and roads here in disrepair, she said. The park is completing a $74 million renovation that built a new lodge and removed some 300 structures that threatened the giant sequoias.

The project ``shows what can be accomplished'' with an infusion of federal money, Fister said.

A wide array of maintenance issues plague the 57 national parks and 327 other natural and historic sites that make up the national park system.

They include deficient guardrails on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, a failing water line at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and an overburdened sewage system in Yellowstone National Park.

The White House provided for no new park acquisitions in its budget request to Congress this year. Instead, the Interior Department was told to focus on Bush's campaign promise to clear up a $4.9 billion backlog of park maintenance and repairs.

Bush sent Congress a proposal last month to pay for a portion of his pledge _ $439.6 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.