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National Association of Conservation Districts' Spring Legislative Conference, Washington, D.C.

Remarks of Governor Christine Todd Whitman,
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,
at the National Association of Conservation Districts
Spring Legislative Conference
Washington, D.C.

March 26, 2001

Thank you, Read (Smith), for that introduction. It’s good to be with you today.

When I read your letter inviting me to speak to you during your conference, I knew by the time I had finished the first paragraph that I wanted to be here. It said, in part, that the purpose of your conference was to build support for programs that are – and I quote – “delivered in partnership with state and local governments.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, you’re talking my language. As I go about my work at the EPA, I’m looking for partners – partners with whom we can work in pursuit of shared goals – namely, preserving, protecting, and improving our environment for our families, and their futures.

This effort will be one way the Bush Administration makes real the President’s commitment during the campaign to make the federal government more citizen-centered, result-oriented, and, wherever possible, market-based. At EPA, we will also be focusing on results – guided not by process but by performance.

America’s conservation districts have a long, proud history of environmental awareness and activism. You were environmentalists before the word was invented. You don’t always get the headlines, but you sure do get results. You have an amazing ability to bring together the resources available from every level to make a difference at the local level. Whoever first coined the phrase, “Think globally, act locally” was probably familiar with your work.

The Agency that President Bush has given me the honor to lead has rarely had a problem thinking globally. But I do believe we can do better at helping others act locally. I am convinced that we have reached a point in our national life where we can move beyond the command and control model that has long-defined Washington’s relationship with the rest of the country on environmental policy. The time is ripe for partnership-building.

It’s been more than 30 years now since the EPA was created. And as we consider the past three decades, I think we can all agree that the work done by the EPA has helped transform the state of America’s environment. By nearly every measure, our environment is healthier today than it was in 1970. Our air is cleaner, our water purer, and our land is better protected.

Over that same time, we have also seen a transformation in the way millions of Americans and thousands of American businesses approach their own environmental responsibilities.

Not too long ago, most of us never gave a second thought to how our efforts to grow greener grass might affect a nearby river. Now we see organic lawn management practices sprouting up.

There was a time when most businesses viewed environmental requirements as unwanted intruders. Today, many business leaders make superior environmental performance an inherent part of their business strategy.

Where we once took our environmental and natural resources for granted, we now instinctively understand how precious they are and how important they are to our future. That means we are ready for a new approach. It’s an approach that you are familiar with because it’s been at the core of your work: building partnerships – partnerships centered on a common goal.

That’s what I want to do with you, build and strengthen the partnership we already share. To that end, I want to discuss a few areas where I think we can work together in the coming months and years to get things done.

The first concerns an area in which I know we can make progress – private land conservation. Earlier this month, the National Governors’ Association held a daylong symposium on the question, “Private Lands, Public Benefits.” I had the honor of giving opening remarks at that event.

I know that if we can work successfully with America’s private landowners, if we can find ways to limit sprawl, preserve farm and ranch land, and reward responsible stewardship, the entire country will benefit. Government doesn’t have a monopoly on responsible land stewardship.

Every acre of privately owned land provides enormous environmental benefits. These lands help protect watersheds, improve air quality, provide wildlife habitat, and maintain an important part of the American economy and way of life.

People who work the land know the importance of responsible land stewardship. That land is their livelihood. I know a little bit about that myself. I was raised on my family’s farm in Oldwick, New Jersey. My husband and I now make that farm our home and we feel a deep sense of responsibility to it. That’s a feeling I believe most private land owners share.

Of course, in recent years we’ve seen increasing amounts of working lands lost to housing developments, mega-malls, and industrial parks. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against progress and I understand that people have the right to use their land appropriately.

I do believe, however, that government can do more to provide incentives and rewards for private working landowners who want to resist the pressures of development.

In my home state, voters in 1998 passed a referendum to provide the funds needed to preserve one million acres of open space and farmland – and they weren’t alone. All across America, people are supporting efforts like this in their communities. Each election cycle, 80 percent of the open space ballot questions pass, generating about $7 billion for open space preservation. There’s a great deal of support for this approach. It’s truly a public-private partnership that works.

Another area where I know we can work together is closely linked to responsible private land stewardship. It’s what I see as the greatest clean water challenge in America – nonpoint source pollution of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries.

Nonpoint source pollution is the main reason that about one-third of surveyed lakes, rivers, and estuaries aren’t clean enough for fishing swimming, or drinking. That’s better than things were, but it’s not good enough

There is much that can be done to improve the health of our waters, but I believe the key to success lies in taking a watershed protection approach to controlling nonpoint source pollution, the leading uncontrolled source of water pollution in the United States today.

In my home state of New Jersey, we adopted watershed management as the cornerstone of our clean water program. In my last year as governor, I proposed a far-reaching water management rule designed to protect our watersheds by ensuring that development and other activity occurred in ways that our watersheds could handle. And New Jersey is not alone.

In North Carolina, for example, local governments are required to implement water supply watershed protection programs that control development and address agricultural impacts to protect drinking water reservoirs.

Other stakeholders, such as your organization, are also at work trying to address nonpoint source pollution. I applaud your active effort to promote best management practices, and protect critical watershed lands.

Of course, just as we have a responsibility to protect our watershed lands, we are also faced with the challenge posed by America’s aging water infrastructure. Our efforts to conserve and protect water are too often undercut by old water delivery systems that leak millions of gallons of water into the ground and water treatment facilities that are past their useful life.

In some American cities, as workers dig under streets to lay fiber optic lines, they have to be careful they don’t disturb Civil War-era pipes that are still in use.

Last month, I submitted to Congress the EPA’s second report on the Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey. There’s no doubt that over the next 20 years, it’s going to cost a lot of money – even by Washington standards – to address those needs.

Clearly, this situation will not only require a strong commitment from federal, state, and local governments, it will also call for innovative funding mechanisms, public-private partnerships, and technological advances. I believe, however, that this is a challenge we can meet together, as partners.

Another thing partners do is listen to each other. That is why, in response to numerous requests, I have asked our program office to go back and see if we can provide more flexibility to the states with respect to TMDLs.

I also heard your request about extending the comment period on the CAFOs rule. Today, I’m pleased to give you an answer. I have decided to extend the comment period on the CAFOs rule by 75 days. Of course, you know we are up against a court-ordered deadline, so this extension is going to create a crunch. But all that means is that we are going to have to work togther on this. But that is, after all, what good partners do.

From my perspective, one of the greatest assets conservation districts bring to the table is the knack they have of helping find local solutions to local problems. It’s rare that a one size fits all solution can be widely applied across our great and diverse land. What works in New Jersey won’t necessarily work in Nebraska – and vice versa.

That’s why you really can make a huge difference. I was impressed to see on your web site that more than 15,000 volunteers serve on the governing boards of America’s conservation districts, that those men and women work with more than 2.3 million land managers across the country, and that their efforts touch nearly 780 million acres of private land. But as big as that sounds, you’re never bigger than your local conservation district.

America’s 3,000 conservation districts are exactly the sort of partners EPA needs to effectively meet its mission. In the coming months and years, I hope you will keep me apprised of your views on important issues facing my Agency, as well as your ideas and suggestions on how we can build an even more effective partnership.

Together, we can do so much for this great country of ours. I look forward to working with you to reach our shared goals – goals that reflect the values we share as stewards of our environment.

Thank you.