WASHINGTON - Breaking his second campaign promise on the environment, President Bush has abandoned a pledge to invest $100 million a year in a program for rain forest conservation, according to the budget he released yesterday.
Bush announced in a foreign policy speech last August that he planned to greatly expand the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, which allows poor countries to restructure their debt in exchange for protecting the disappearing forests.
''Expanding the aims of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, I will ask Congress to provide $100 million to support the exchange of debt relief for the protection of tropical forests,'' Bush said in the speech, delivered in Miami on Aug. 25.
These forests affect the air we breathe, the food we eat, medicines that cure disease, and are home to more than half of earth's animal and plant species...Expanding the aims of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, I will ask Congress to provide $100 million to support the exchange of debt relief for the protection of tropical forests
But in the new federal budget, Bush has arranged for just $13 million for the program. Even that sum isn't new funding; instead, it is diverted from the Agency for International Development.
''They've zeroed it out,'' said Debbie Reed, legislative affairs director for the National Environmental Trust.
Administration officials defended the move as practical, given the problems with the program, which did not spend all its $13 million budget last year. According to Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, the program, launched in 1999, has had ''real practical problems finding a place in the world where an actual swap can take place.''
So far, $5 million has been spent on such a swap in Bangladesh. Another $1 million was used last year for the costs of launching and administering the program, and deals are currently in the works with El Salvador, Thailand, and Belize, according to specialists familiar with the bill.
Asked what Bush had meant by his campaign pledge to spend $100 million a year, Daniels said the president ''meant $100 million as quickly as it can be used.''
''If it makes you feel better, we could put $100 million there, and then $94 million would be sitting in an unexpended account a year from now, if the experience of last year did not change,'' Daniels said.
The broken pledge has an extra sting for US Representative Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio and a close ally of Bush throughout the campaign. Portman was a chief sponsor of the bill that established the program in 1998, along with Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana. According to sources familiar with the program, both Portman and Lugar have for months been asking the White House for full funding for the rain-forest program.
Bush introduced his expansion of the program at a critical time in the campaign, one week after the Democratic convention, as Vice President Al Gore's numbers were sharply on the rise. Attacking Gore for what he described as a weak commitment to the issue, Bush presented himself as the more practical and compassionate steward of the environment, proposing to ''use the power of debt reduction to relieve poverty and protect the resources that sustain life in the Americas.''
''We will link debt reduction and the conservation of tropical forests,'' Bush said. ''These forests affect the air we breathe, the food we eat, medicines that cure disease, and are home to more than half of earth's animal and plant species.''
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