President Bush yesterday created a Cabinet-level committee to oversee the nation's ocean and Great Lakes policies, but some environmentalists voiced concerns that the initiative...

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WASHINGTON — President Bush yesterday created a Cabinet-level committee to oversee the nation’s ocean and Great Lakes policies, but some environmentalists voiced concerns that the initiative could be underfunded and eventually ineffective.

The Bush administration touted the move, designed to centralize decision-making on subjects as varied as research and pollution-fighting, as a major step forward for its environmental policies, which often have been harshly criticized by environmentalists.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, will head the Committee on Ocean Policy.

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Bush issued the executive order creating the panel in response to recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s report released in April. The report suggested a major overhaul of ocean policy was needed to reverse decades of damage to domestic and international waters from pollution, erosion, development and over-fishing.

As outlined in Bush’s order, the new panel will “provide advice on establishment or implementation of policies concerning ocean-related matters,” including the Great Lakes, to the president and department heads. The committee will gather information from state, local and tribal leaders.

The chairman of the commission on Ocean Policy, retired Adm. James Watkins, said in a statement that it is too soon to know if the executive order will achieve the commission’s goals.

“We need to understand how the plan addresses the multitude of recommendations made by the commission as well as the availability of funding to support these activities,” he said.

Funding won’t be determined until Congress and Bush begin planning for the 2006 budget.

The commission’s report contained 212 recommendations, one of which was to create a $4 billion government trust fund to pay for ocean initiatives over four years. Some commissioners said yesterday they had not seen the president’s plan and did not yet know how many of their specific recommendations would be implemented.

Some in the environmental community said they are cautiously optimistic about Bush’s plans. While ocean advocates said they were impressed that the administration appears to support reversing ocean damage, they voiced concern that its efforts won’t go far enough.

“Creating a Cabinet-level committee is a good idea, but we need a specific presidential directive to the committee to implement a policy that will restore and protect our oceans,” said Sarah Chasis, director of the National Resources Defense Council’s coastal and water program. “Right now there is no clear mandate for the committee.”