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Bush, Kerry vie for environmental spotlight

Earth Day draws speeches, promises

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(CNN) -- Marking Earth Day, President Bush unveiled a wetlands protection plan on Thursday, but Democratic rival John Kerry questioned Bush's environmental credentials.

"Once again, my friends, this administration is playing the smoke- and-mirrors game," Kerry charged at a Houston rally in Texas, the president's home state.

Kerry said Bush has shown little interest in the environment until "election time" and said his policies for the first three years had threatened wetlands.

"He's actually proven himself very good at recycling," Kerry said of Bush. "He has recycled the deficit, the bad economic policies, the bad environment policies, the bad foreign policy. And that's why I hate to say this to Texas, but that's why he's got to be recycled back to Crawford."

With his stop in Texas, Kerry wrapped up a three-day tour in which he focused on the environment.

Bush traveled to Maine to announce his plan to create and protect at least 3 million acres of wetlands over five years.

In a speech at Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 1,600-acre coastal habitat, Bush said that he would change what is known as the "no net loss" policy, which was adopted in 2002.

"I've come here because this is a great example of people seizing initiative, a great example of where the government can help but not stand in way of common sense policies that will make a significant difference to wetlands, and the native species," Bush said.

In its place, Bush is proposing the goal of creating and restoring at least 1 million acres of wetlands, as well as improving and protecting an additional 2 million acres of wetlands over the next five years.

The Earth Day event comes at a time Bush's environmental record is under attack by Kerry and many major environmental groups. (Environmental groups target Bush; Church group slams Bush on Clean Air Act)

Bush stressed the importance of wetlands to wildlife and to improving water quality, as well as their value for hunting and other recreational uses.

He said that the plan would provide "substantial financial incentives" to landowners to restore farmland to wetlands.

Bush said that federal funds were already being matched with money from state and local governments as well as from companies and conservation groups in public-private partnerships.

"Good conservation and good stewardship will happen when people say 'I'm not going to just rely upon the government to be the solution to the problem,'" Bush said.

An avid outdoorsman, Bush has long stressed public-private partnerships, but critics say he has allowed big businesses to rewrite the nation's environmental laws.

The League of Conservation Voters, for example, gave Bush a grade of "F" in 2003. Kerry has a lifetime voting record of 92 percent with the group and also has its endorsement.

Bush said that Department of Agriculture figures released on Thursday show that the annual loss of wetlands has been reduced and that almost as many new acres of wetlands are being restored.

"Our national commitment to wetlands is showing good progress -- really better than good progress when you think about the fact we were losing half-a-million acres a year not so many years ago," Bush said.

A White House document said the money for the program was included in the president's fiscal year 2005 budget.

The document said the budget included $4.4 billion for conservation programs, including but not limited to wetlands, and called that an increase of $1.5 billion over the fiscal 2001 budget Bush inherited from the Clinton administration.

The White House said the United States was losing about 290,000 acres of wetlands annually in the 1975-1984 time frame, but has now almost stopped that decline.

In January 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the annual loss at 58,500 wetlands acres, the White House said.

Gas prices

In his comments in Texas, Kerry also returned to a disputed issue that dominated headlines earlier in the week: a report by journalist Bob Woodward that Bush and top Saudi officials had discussed increasing oil production to lower prices in advance of the election.

The White House, Saudi officials, and Woodward have all denied any kind of secret pact. Kerry acknowledged there may not have been any stealthy conversation, but just a "conversation between friends."

"But here's the simple truth. The fact remains that whatever it is, was, Americans are getting a bad deal today," he said, citing record-high gasoline prices.

Kerry quoted Bush as saying in a debate in 2000 that he believed the president should "get on the phone with the OPEC cartel" and "jaw-bone" the group to up supply, lowering the price.

"Mr. President, I'm here to say that if there was no deal, no agreement, then stand up today and jaw-bone OPEC to lower the price," Kerry said. "Let's lower the price now."

CNN's John King contributed to this report.

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