President Obama marked the Interior Department's 160th anniversary today with an enthusiastically received visit to announce he was restoring the role of federal biologists in endangered species decisions.
"Today I've signed a memorandum that will help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, a process undermined by past administrations," Obama said to applause. "The work of scientists and experts in my administration -- including right here in the Interior Department -- will be respected."
Speaking to about 600 people at Interior's Yates Auditorium, with many more Interior employees watching on closed-circuit broadcast from around the country, Obama said the Endangered Species Act had protected the most threatened wildlife for three decades.
"We should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it," he said.
The memorandum requests the Interior and Commerce secretaries to review a rule issued by the Bush administration in December and determine whether to undertake a new rulemaking on the process under which federal agencies consult with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists on actions that might threaten species.
Until the review is finished, agencies must follow the prior long-standing consultation practices.
"Throughout our history, there's been a tension between those who've sought to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations and those who have sought to profit from these resources," Obama said. "But I'm here to tell you this is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and preserve the environment for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren."
Greeted with a standing ovation and cheers when he first appeared, Obama drew applause several times during his eight-minute speech.
"Your mission is more important than ever before," he said. "The Interior Department manages the land on which 30 percent of the nation's energy is produced. So you have a major role to play, all of you, in our clean energy future. The nation is depending on you to help us end the tyranny of foreign oil and become energy independent -- by harnessing the wind and the sun, our water, our soil, and American innovation."
Obama listed projects that will be undertaken with the $3 billion flowing to Interior from the economic stimulus.
The money will increase renewable energy on public lands, boost energy efficiency of facilities, renovate laboratories and replace research equipment, some of which is a half-century old, he said. It will preserve historic landmarks and natural wonders like Yellowstone National Park and the Statue of Liberty and invest in roads on public lands. And it will provide drinking water to rural areas, repair water infrastructure and rebuild schools on Indian reservations.
Those investments will be made with unprecedented oversight, he added, referring to the numerous ethics scandals that have plagued the department in recent years.
"In the past, as all of you know, we've seen lapses that have damaged the reputation of this department, despite the integrity and faithful service of the vast majority of people who work here," he said. "In just these first five weeks, Secretary Salazar has helped bring about a new era of responsibility and accountability."
Obama also talked about Interior having a "sacred trust" to protect the nation's land and water. He conjured images of a child wandering amid ancient redwoods, a young man running his hand along the walls at Ellis Island, and a family hiking along canyons.
Obama recalls childhood trip
And the president recalled how, when he was 11 years old, he and his grandmother, mother and sister flew to Seattle, drove along the coast of California to the Grand Canyon and saw the Great Lakes before heading back to Yellowstone.
"That was an experience I will never forget," he said. "It's an experience I want for my daughters, and for all of our daughters and sons, to see the incredible beauty of this nation. It's an experience that's only possible because of the work you do each and every day."
Obama said the Interior Department was born on March 3, 1849, when the Senate passed a bill creating it "with the tally of a contentious vote, amidst growing tensions between North and South, as our nation expanded westward."
He joked that it became known as "the Department of Everything Else," intended to address a multitude of needs. But he said Interior has become a "Department of America" and its mission has emerged: "to defend the natural bounty of this country and the welfare of its people."
Introducing Obama, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited the roles of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt in Interior history and said the current crisis brings about a moment of change.
"That new era will have us play a central role in building our clean energy economy and tackling climate change," Salazar said. "That new era will usher in an unprecedented commitment to preserving America's treasured landscapes. And that new era will usher in new responsibilities and opportunities for the young people of America."
This was Obama's first official visit to Interior, although he had been to the department Saturday to play basketball on its newly renovated court. President George W. Bush did not make a trip to the Interior Department until September, just months before the end of his two terms.
The anniversary program included songs by the Interior Department chorus, a presentation of colors by the Park Police, and a blessing by a Bureau of Indian Affairs official in both his native language and English. The chief historian of the National Park Service also spoke about some of Interior's most historic moments.