Well, thank you all very much. A warm welcome like that is almost enough to make me want to run for office again. (Laughter.) Almost. But I'm delighted to be here this morning, and I appreciate, of course, the warm welcome and the very rare privilege of being introduced by the President of the United States. That doesn't happen very often when you're the Vice President. I've taken a lot of grief over the years, obviously, for that hunting accident in Texas — most of it from the President. (Laughter.)
I will never forget walking into the Oval Office after that happened. And fortunately, my friend recovered and is in good health. But I walked into the Oval Office that day and the President looked at me, and he said, "Dick, here I am 30 percent in the polls, and you shot the only trial lawyer in Texas who supports me." (Laughter and applause.)
And of course, the President was hoping to join all of you this morning. He's been heavily committed this week, though, in terms of the events on Capitol Hill. After many turns in the road, the House is supposed to vote — could be any minute now, frankly — on the revised financial rescue package that's been before the Congress for these last couple of weeks. The revised bill increases the limit on insured deposits to $250,000, and includes tax incentives for business to invest and expand and create jobs.
Nobody is happy about the current mess on Wall Street, but without decisive action by the government, there is a real concern that the problems we're seeing today could get worse — indeed, parts of the credit market have already effectively seized up. As President Bush said, the choice is between "government action and the real prospect of economic hardship for millions of our citizens." The financial rescue package clearly serves the national interest. The President, I believe, was right to propose it, and we look forward to having the opportunity to sign it into law.
As we gather here in Reno, I want to thank our many distinguished guests, including two fine Cabinet members. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and of course Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne have been with you. And it's a pleasure, as always, to see the Governor of Nevada, Jim Gibbons, who is an old friend. And I also want to thank Bob Model, Chairman of the Sporting Conservation Council — a Wyoming boy. Bob and I shared a day on the Bighorn River together some years ago in Montana. And Steve Mealey, here as well, used to be the forest supervisor on the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming when I was the Congressman from Wyoming, and a senior member of the Public Lands Subcommittee, and Steve and I had occasion to take many official trips to the backcountry in Wyoming during those days. (Laughter.)
But it's great to see all of you in attendance today, because this is an extraordinarily important conference. The idea for a Conference on Wildlife Policy originated last year with an executive order. President Bush directed the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, Jim Connaughton, who's with us today, to work with the White House and the Departments to convene this meeting. And I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to make it successful. As all of you know very well, President Bush made wildlife conservation an early and a high priority of his administration. We've carried out that commitment in these eight years — and we've been proud to have people like you as partners in the enterprise.
The men and women in this room understand what conservation is all about. It means reverence toward creation, and a commitment to faithful stewardship. It means guarding our spectacular wildlife populations — not just for our own time, but for all time. Conservation also means passing on a way of life to the next generation — a tradition of sportsmanship, cooperation, and respect for the natural world.
This ethic was embodied in the life and the work of Theodore Roosevelt. As an avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt saw firsthand the ignorance and excess that were destroying America's wildlife, scarring the land, and putting natural resources in danger. He wasn't the sort to stand by and let that continue, so he brought together the nation's governors for an historic meeting on conservation. As a group, they declared that "Conservation of our natural resources is a subject of transcendent importance, which should engage...the nation, the states, and the People in earnest cooperation."
From the time of that conference, 100 years ago, until this very day, we've been a nation that takes conservation seriously. No other country on earth does a better job than the United States in respecting the environment and caring for the wonders of nature. And one of the reasons for that leadership is the active concern and participation of the American sportsman.
Sportsmen tend to be the best informed and most determined advocates for sensible wildlife and habitat conservation. Every year, people like you give thousands of hours in volunteer time to improve wildlife habitat, to educate fellow citizens on the importance of conservation. Last year alone, sportsmen across the nation provided hundreds of millions of dollars for wildlife restoration. You don't just talk about the issues that matter — you back it up with money, with time, and with effort. You've proven that the people who are closest to the land are usually the ones who do the most for the land. Our whole nation benefits from the wisdom, the daily work, and the common sense of the American sportsman.
We must never lose sight of a basic truth: When it comes to wildlife and natural resources, the sum total of wisdom and concern is not contained in the office buildings in Washington, D.C. As President Ronald Reagan once said, the American people "have as much concern for the preservation of the beauty and the open space in their states as does the federal government. I just cannot believe that a little elite group in Washington has a conscience and that the people themselves do not."
President Bush has spent eight years encouraging a spirit of cooperative conservation — engaging the whole nation, and making sure that voices like yours are heard in the corridors of power. The President has met regularly with sportsmen and leaders of hunting and conservation groups. He's listened carefully to what American hunters have to say. And I'm proud that many of your good ideas are now at the center of our conservation efforts. We set clear goals to improve habitat, to enlarge wildlife populations, and to increase opportunities for citizens of all ages to enjoy the great American outdoors. And together, we are meeting those goals.
We're working together to protect wildlife in America's forests. During our administration, the Forest Service was partnered with hunting groups to improve habitat for game species such as elk and deer. As a result, across broad stretches of federal lands, the animals now have better food and cover, which can lead to healthier populations. And in 2002, President Bush took one of the most significant and positive environmental steps in our lifetime when he announced the Healthy Forests Initiative.
In an age of increasingly violent wildfires, the Healthy Forests Initiative was critical and long overdue. As the President said, "the kindling on the ground, the decades of neglect, the decades of failed policy have meant that our forest fires are incredibly hot, incredibly catastrophic." Under Healthy Forests and the National Fire Plan, we have thinned and removed underbrush and carried out other landscape restoration across nearly 26 million acres. This, too, has made a tremendous difference in protecting animal habitat, food sources, and hunting grounds.
With Healthy Forests, as with other policies, the theme was cooperation. We talked to everybody. We got excellent advice from the people who manage the forests, and work in them, and hunt in them. And because we've acted sensibly and decisively, more of America's forests will be alive and healthy for generations to come.
These have also been years of progress and improvement for America's wetlands. Wetlands and marshes are the nurseries of many types of wildlife, and up to half of all bird species on this continent nest or feed in our wetlands. These areas also provide great recreational opportunities for those of us who like to fish and hunt. Four years ago, President Bush committed the nation to restoring, improving, and protecting at least three million acres of wetlands over a five-year period. I'm pleased to report that we've met this goal, and we've done so one year ahead of schedule.
Many of you have worked extremely hard to help revive these vital ecosystems, and appreciate all you've done. In every way possible, we've tried to encourage and support the participation of sportsmen and landowners in our conservation efforts. We've expanded federal tax incentives to encourage private property owners to designate their property for conservation purposes. The response has been strong and positive. Through the Conservation Reserve Program, we are helping ranchers and farmers to restore grassland habitat.
Since 2001, we've enrolled more than one million new acres in this program — and this has yielded important new nesting habitat. I've heard President Bush himself talk about how rewarding it is to make your land hospitable for wildlife — down at his ranch in Texas, they've cut underbrush, planted native grasses, and restored the land to wild prairie. Their grasses and wildflowers are now home to ground-nesting birds. And after years of hard work, he and Laura now hear the call of the bobwhite quail on their property.
I've heard similar stories from other land owners — and taken together, they add up to an enormous benefit for our nation. It's worth remembering that the federal government owns or manages one of every four acres in America — and that means we need to work with the people who own the other three-fourths. Let's get more wildlife habitat in the sensible way — by encouraging private owners to do the job themselves, not by starting up another federal land-grab.
When it comes to the use of federal lands, we have worked together to ensure reasonable access and responsible use by sportsmen, hunters, and conservationists. Since 2001, our administration has launched scores of new hunting and fishing programs on National Wildlife Refuges. We are working with 40 sportsmen groups to further improve access to hunting and fishing on federal property. We're also making it easier for sportsmen to know where it is legal to hunt, by marking access points, improving highway signage for trail heads, and providing electronic maps online.
These steps are also helping to raise and train the sportsmen and conservationists of tomorrow. Our administration is encouraging young people to learn about the outdoors through federal programs like "Kids in the Woods" — which works to teach children about conservation and the role of responsible wildlife management.
Private organizations, as always, are doing their part. Pheasants Forever has a program to solve what it calls America's "Nature Deficit Disorder." And they've given the program a great name — "No Child Left Indoors." Ducks Unlimited has created "Project Webfoot" in America's classrooms to promote responsible stewardship of our wetlands. And from the Boone and Crockett Club to the National Wild Turkey Federation, sportsmen's groups are promoting a culture of conservation that will be sustained by our children and our grandchildren. These programs also remind young people that getting out of the house, going out into the wild with your Dad or Mom, and encountering the natural world can be a fun and exciting way to spend a day. More than that, it creates memories you'll carry with you for a lifetime.
Most of you here today know that experience. And you can be proud of the work you've done as citizen-conservationists — whether in passing along noble traditions, or in bringing your good influence to bear on public policy. I've pointed out some of the great progress we've made by working together. With this conference, we're taking another step forward, by laying out a ten-year Action Plan that will shape hunting and wildlife conservation for the 21st century.
Yet even as we lay out a strategy for the long term, there are some things we can do right now. Today the President has asked me to announce an important enhancement of the Conservation Reserve Program. Effective immediately, we are increasing the incentives for landowners to enroll in state access programs, which should allow us in the next five years to make available seven million acres of CRP lands for hunting. (Applause.)
In addition, the President wants to build on the success of our wetlands restoration program. Just last week he committed the federal government to protecting, restoring, and improving an additional four million acres of wetlands over the next five years. (Applause.)
I'm also pleased to tell you that our administration is working to quickly finalize a memorandum of understanding with Western governors on energy exploration. Both Democrats and Republicans understand that this nation can produce more oil and gas — and we can do it in an environmentally responsible way. The President and I believe that a sound energy strategy must include opening up the Continental Shelf and the North Slope to safe, careful production. We have a responsibility to meet more of our own energy needs with American wells, American pipelines, and American refineries. The President has made this point repeatedly to the Congress. And now it's time for Congress to get off the dime and strengthen the nation's energy future.
The President is also asking Congress to strengthen and expand three important elements of our conservation policy. First, our conservation tax incentives have proven extremely effective. We should make these incentives a permanent part of the tax code, and expand them to include conservation donors who make their living in the hunting and fishing business. (Applause.)
Second, we've been impressed with the record of oil and gas pilot offices in the Bureau of Land Management ensuring our energy decisions properly account for wildlife and other conservation needs. These offices have done a fine job in bringing all the players together, getting everyone on the same page, gathering sound information, and making decisions in the public interest. That's pretty much the definition of good government — so we ought to keep those pilot offices in place.
Third, the Sporting Conservation Council, which we created in 2006, has proven itself to be an excellent source of insight and good judgment. Congress should formally authorize it for a ten-year term to help us carry out that ten-year plan. (Applause.)
In these eight years, ladies and gentlemen, we've upheld the duties of stewardship —- and we've left a good example for others to follow in the years to come. By fostering a spirit of respect and cooperation across the board, we've protected wildlife and habitats, gotten the forests and parks into better shape, and helped young Americans develop their own appreciation and sense of responsibility for the land and life around us.
One person who is doing his part is a gentleman named Lowell Baier. For the past 37 years, Lowell has brought together nonprofit groups and government officials to restore wildlife habitats and preserve our rich hunting heritage. He has preserved Teddy Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch, and he helped lead the effort to restore the North American Wild Sheep. He knows how to — how important it is for all citizens to help safeguard our nation's wildlife and scenic beauty. Lowell says, the work of conservation "is both an honor and a duty." He's right about that — and people like him are models of upright citizenship.
For myself and for the President, let me say that we'll always appreciate the advice and friendship of so many who are here this morning. We've been honored to have you as partners in protecting our nation's natural resources. Together, we've kept our focus on the future, we've kept the right priorities, and we've made wise choices. History will be the judge — and history, I believe, will say, job well done.
Thank you very much.