With a chilly, easterly wind whipping off the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace yesterday, President Clinton implored Americans to resist attempts by Republicans in Congress to weaken federal environmental laws in a speech marking the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.
Mr. Clinton, speaking to several thousand people at Havre de Grace's Concord Point Lighthouse at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna just before noon, said, "This Earth Day may be the most important Earth Day since the beginning.
"Our natural security must be seen as part of our national security."
With two Chesapeake Bay skipjacks anchored behind him, Mr. Clinton said Republicans are mistaken when they say that environmental protection is not possible without sacrificing jobs and business growth.
"Just say 'no,' folks. Just say 'no' to what they are doing," Mr. Clinton said.
Mr. Clinton cited a list of GOP proposals in Congress he said would halt government's ability to write new environmental regulations, force taxpayers to pay polluters not to pollute and promote costly litigation.
He said lobbyists for big business have become puppeteers for many in Congress -- rewriting laws and advising representatives on how to sell them to Americans without regard for their effect on the environment.
The president acknowledged that environmental laws and policies spawned by Americans' disgust with trash-filled waterways and smog-filled skies during the 1970s needed to be reformed. But as Congress rewrites the laws protecting water, air and wildlife, he said, "Let's change in the right way, not the wrong way."
The president urged bipartisan cooperation. But there was scarcely a Republican among his invited guests, with the exception of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from Maryland's 1st District who recently defied fellow Republicans over proposals to rewrite the federal Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
Mr. Clinton, who was joined on the trip by Vice President Al Gore, honored Gaylord Nelson, a former U.S. senator and Wisconsin governor known as the founder of Earth Day, which was first held April 22, 1970.
Shortly after beginning his 25-minute speech, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Nelson to the stage and announced that he will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
"The beauty you see is God-given but it was defended and rescued by human beings," Mr. Clinton said under gray skies that threatened rain at any second. "You might have gotten a little more of the environment than you bargained for today," the president said.
The rain did not discourage Elizabeth Bradley, 70, of Fallston and her daughter-in-law Carolyn Edwards, 42, of Havre de Grace.
"I was praying that it would stop raining, and it has," said Ms. Bradley, as she waited for the president to appear.
They arrived at 8:30 a.m. and were able to stand a few yards from the stage where Mr. Gore, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Harford Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and Havre de Grace Mayor Gunther Hirsch spoke.
Ms. Edwards, a nursing home aide, braved fatigue after working an eight-hour overnight shift, "because I wanted to see the president in person, up close."
"Small-town America doesn't get a chance like this very often," said Kathleen Wheeler, 50, a teacher from Havre de Grace.
After Mr. Clinton spoke, he shook hands with some in the crowd and gave the thumbs-up sign to the 61 members of the Havre de Grace High School Symphonic Band, who performed.
All the while, sharp-shooters could be seen on the roof of the nearby Decoy Museum and Secret Service agents were positioned on at least one of the skipjacks. A small, inflatable boat and a Coast Guard cutter patrolled the river.
Still, some people flinched at the thunderous booms of artillery testing at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Before strolling down the promenade, Havre de Grace's new waterside walkway, Mr. Clinton met privately with a half-dozen environmental activists from around the country, including Mary Rosso of Anne Arundel County, who has fought against pollution near her home. The Rev. Violet Hopkins-Tann, pastor of St. James AME Church near Havre de Grace, sat with the presidential party during the speech. She has been among those fighting a proposal to build a large rubble landfill in the Gravel Hill community.