TOWNSEND, Tenn. — A severe thunderstorm in the Great Smoky Mountains thwarted President Bush's plan on Friday to mark Earth Day by participating in a trail restoration project and delivering a speech on the environment.
Instead, Bush made brief remarks in an almost empty airport hangar in Knoxville, about 30 miles away.
Bush had hoped to become the first sitting president to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park since it was dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. But the storm dashed Bush's hope of paying his 22nd visit to a national park. No sitting president has made that many visits to national parks, the White House said.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation's busiest, with more than 9 million annual visitors.
But it is also polluted by emissions from power plants, pulp and paper mills, chemical factories and cement facilities in the mid-Atlantic region, with visibility in the park sometimes cut severely.
James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, acknowledged the park's long-standing air pollution but said the air quality "has been improving or at least has been remaining stable."
In his 10-minute remarks, Bush said Earth Day was a good occasion to "recommit ourselves to being good stewards of our land. We didn't create this Earth, but we have an obligation to protect it."
He maintained that his so-called clear skies initiative would cut air pollution from coal-fired plants by 70%. The act proposes cutting power plant emissions by that amount by 2015 and 2018. Environmental, health and labor groups say emissions could be reduced by as much as 90% by 2008 under existing law if the administration would issue tighter regulations.
The president's initiative was rejected by a Senate committee this year, with critics saying it would grant polluters too much time to meet new emissions standards and do too little to address global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency later enacted a broad rule aimed at tightening air quality standards.
Bush has been criticized for allowing a maintenance backlog to persist at the national parks. The president said, however, that he had proposed $4.9 billion to end the maintenance backlog.
Democrats were not convinced by Bush's words.
"Bush has been a polluter, not a promoter, of the environment," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. "Since taking office, he has put the profits of special interests ahead of the health and well-being of Americans."