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Mankato, Minn. — President Bush revealed plans to add 5 million additional acres to the popular Conservation Reserve Program during a stop at a LeSueur area farm. Standing in a field, he said the initiative helps "the best stewards of the land become better stewards of the land." "Approximately 800,000 farmers participate in this program. In return for an annual payment from this program, farmers retire some of their land letting it turn back to its natural state. As I told you it's good for the soil and its good for the habitat," he said.
Farmers, hunters and environmentalists have come together to praise the program for reducing soil erosion and improving watershed quality. The program is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and when the increases go through, there will be more 39 million acres enlisted.
Howard Vincent is the president of Pheasants Forever. The group works to increase the number of pheasants by improving wildlife habitat. Vincent says he's very happy with Bush's announcement.
"Minnesota is one of the top ag producing states in the country and it will continue to be that way but we can still protect those marginal farm lands, whether they're highly erodible whether they are close to rivers or odd shapes. Its important that we protect those wetlands and keep them from washing away," he said.
But while the president's announcement was greeted warmly in LeSeuer, in Mankato the Sierra Club was busy hosting a rally lambasting Bush's record on the environment. Speakers criticized the adminstration for, among other things, weakening clean air and water laws.
The organization's Heather Cusick spoke to the crowd of more than 100, gathered on a busy downtown street corner.
"Now this is our opportunity to demonstrate where the Bush administration has taken environmental policy over the last three years and I think everyone knows what direction he's been taking it... backwards. And we're going to take a short little hike right in from of the Post Office and, yes, we're going to walk backwards," Cusick announced.
That's just what they did.
Around the corner Democrats were busy meeting up in front of the Mankato Government Center. Susan Purtic, from Pompano Beach, Florida, sat on a brown picnic table, with a hand-lettered sign saying Gators for Kerry. She said she made it the day before.
"I saw in the newspaper that DFL organizer were having a whole bunch of folks getting together and it turned into kind of a party over there and everyone just, lots of kids and high school kids and teachers and people of all walks of life were there to paint positive signs for the Kerry campaign," she said.
While Democrats rallied, their Republican counterparts were busy filing into a nearby rock quarry. There, surrounded by massive piles of crushed limestone, they waited eagerly for the president to arrive.
And when he did, Minnesota's junior senator, Norm Coleman, enthusiastically introduced him.
"In Minnesota we know a workhorse from a show horse and you know you don't change horses in the middle of a stream," Coleman said.
The crowd waved yellow and purple pompoms and chanted "four more years." Almost at once the president made it clear why he had come to the south central Minnesota community -- the first president to do so since Harry Truman.
"I'm here to ask for your vote. I'm also here to ask for your help," he said.
The most recent Minnesota Public Radio-Pioneer Press poll shows a statistical tie between the president and challenger John Kerry. So, state Republicans are guardedly optimistic their party might take Minnesota this fall for the first time in decades. Every vote's expected to count.
The southern region of the state is traditionally considered conservative territory. And by getting out the vote in strongholds like Mankato and LeSueur the Bush campaign hopes to offset the vote in DFL strongholds like the Twin Cities and northeastern Minnesota.
During his roughly 40 minutes at the podium, the president touched on issues like prescription drug coverage for seniors, the war in Iraq, and education reform. He said he needs another term in office to continue to implement his vision for the country.
"We have much more to do to move America forward. I want to be your president for four more years to make the economy stronger, to make the future brighter and better for every single citizen," Bush said.
Afterwards, as the crowd waited for buses to take them from the quarry to their cars, Barb Trexler stood in line surrounded by her three school aged children. Trexler lives in Mankato and works as a nurse. She says she's firm Bush supporter and enjoyed what she heard.
"I appreciated his sense of family and supporting the family leave act to help with caring for my children and elderly parents when they need it. I support that a lot," she said.
But not everyone was so happy. Busloads of ticket-wielding Republicans were turned away from the event moments before it got underway, leaving some would-be supporters less certain of who they plan to endorse come November. There were also several reports of John Kerry backers being turned away at the door.