Obama Celebrates the Interior Department's 160th Anniversary

President Obama joined more than 500 Department of Interior staffers to mark its 160th anniversary in Washington, D.C.Video by AP
CQ Transcripts Wire
Tuesday, March 3, 2009; 3:29 PM

INTERIOR SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Thank you all very much. I want to welcome all of you to the 160 anniversary of the Department of Interior. The Department of Interior's history mirrors the story of our nation. We have changed as America has changed. We have taken on new challenges and responsibilities as the issues facing our nation and our world have changed over time.

We have been entrusted to serve as the stewards of America the beautiful. Purple mountains, rooted plains, the landmarks of our history and the icons of our heritage. When secretary of the interior, Thomas Ewing, took the oath of office on March 3, 1849, the United States of America ended at the Mississippi River. There were only 29 stars on the flag of the United States.

The Department of the Interior today now reaches across 12 time zones. It includes responsibility for places as grand as Yosemite, structures as mighty as the Hoover Dam, and creatures as small as the tiniest song bird.

Along the way, our nation has passed through times of deep crisis; the War Between the States, 13 economic recessions, the Great Depression. But with each crisis, the Department of Interior has helped our nation not only persevere but grow stronger.

At the dawn of the 20th century when America was losing its forests, its wildlife, and its open spaces, President Teddy Roosevelt turned an environmental crisis into the legacy of stewardship that we still enjoy today. He expanded our national parks, laying the foundation for a modern-day national park system. And he built the world's largest system of lands dedicated to wildlife conservation, the National Wildlife Refuge System.

And in the dark days of the Great Depression, in those dark days of economic crisis never seen before, President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps put 3 million people to work on conservation and construction projects in our parks, refuges, and public works around America. Many of those projects were planned and designed in this very building.

When faced with a crisis, Americans always build a path to progress. And we will do the same as we face the economic crisis of today.

President Barack Obama...


Thank you. President Barack Obama and the American people have entrusted this department with the responsibility of helping lead our economy back to prosperity and economic security. Since the president signed the Recovery Act two weeks ago, we have been working tirelessly in this department to finalize a list of projects so that we can rapidly and wisely invest the $3 billion coming through the Department of the Interior.

These projects must be projects that are ready to go. They must be projects that will create jobs into today's climate. And they must also advance the nation's long-term priorities. We will act with the vision that allows us, as Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930's, to transform the crisis of today into the opportunity of tomorrow. When generations of the future look back at us, we want them to see and to say that we didn't see them simply talk about renewable energy and energy efficiency, we took action on this time of opportunity.


I want them to see...


I want them to see that we moved ahead to restore our national treasures and our icons from the Statue of Liberty in New York to the great sand dunes in Colorado. And I want generations that follow to see that we used this moment to encourage a 21st century civilian conservation corps for our young people.

From the jobs we create in Native American communities to the work that is done to build new trails across our country, our young people will be a keystone of our recovery. But Recovery Act is only the first step. Today, as the Department of the Interior celebrates its 160th birthday, we look forward to a new era of change for our nation and for our department.

That new era will have us play a central role in building our clean-energy economy and tackling climate change. 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 is a moment of change. That is why...


That is why the work of the 67,000 public servants in this department is so exciting and so important to our country. That is why I am so proud of your work. And that is why I am so honored and so proud today that this Department of Interior, in its 160th birthday, has, in our presence, a conservational president, my good friend, the president of the United States, Barack Obama.




Thank you.


Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE) Thank you so much.


Thank you.


Thanks very much. Please, have a seat.


Thank you, Ken. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

It is my honor to join you and the hardworking public servants here at the Department of the Interior as we mark a milestone in the distinguished history of this department. As Ken mentioned, 160 years ago today, with the tally of a contentious vote, amidst growing tensions between North and South, as our nation expanded westward, a deeply divided center passed the bill that created the Department of the Interior.

The department was born less of a singular purpose than of a multitude of needs. It was founded to serve a growing nation whose roles and responsibilities were growing as well.

The department even earned a nickname: the "department of everything else."


Yet throughout our history, as Interior has performed a set of ever-changing and often unrelated duties, an overarching mission has emerged: To defend the natural bounty of this country and the welfare of its people.


As Secretary Salazar has said, you have become the department of America for the services you provide touch the lives of all Americans from the clean water we drink to the clean energy we must generate, from historic monuments and museums that educate and inspire to the vast wilderness that each new generation can discover and explore.

You manage 500 million acres of land, roughly one-fifth of the area of the United States and 1.7 billion acres offshore. It was under this department -- it was this department, under President Teddy Roosevelt, that helped lead an unprecedented effort to protect our natural resources. It was under this department, under President Franklin Roosevelt, that Secretary Harold Ickes supervised the Civilian Conservation Corps to help us overcome the Great Depression.

And your mission is more important than ever before. 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. That's why I'm proud to join you this afternoon. That's why I am pleased that this department is in the capable hands of my great friend, Ken Salazar.

And that is why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act creates jobs by making historic investments in the Department of the Interior. This plan will provide more than $3 billion to the department to create jobs doing the working that America needs you to do.

It will create jobs, increasing our capacity to generate renewable energy on public lands and retrofitting facilities to be far more energy efficient. It will provide for the renovation of laboratories and the replacement of research equipment that, in some cases, is half a century old.

We would fund the long-delayed work to preserve our natural wonders and historic landmarks from Yellowstone National Park to the Statue of Liberty. And we will invest in the roads on which 275 million visitors travel to reach these sites across our country.

We'll provide clean, reliable drinking water to rural areas, promote water conservation, repair aging water infrastructure. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will rebuild and remodel schools on Indian reservations across this country while providing more than $100 million in loans to spur job creation in the Indian economy.


Under the leadership of Secretary Salazar, these investments will be made with unprecedented oversight. 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. In just these first five weeks, Secretary Salazar has helped bring about a new era of responsibility and accountability. It is in this spirit...


It is in this spirit that my recovery plan is being implemented. Finally, today, I assigned 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.


The work of scientists and experts in my administration, including right here in the Interior Department, will be respected. For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it.

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. 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.

That's what we must do.


For you know -- you know, that our long-term prosperity depends upon the faithful stewardship of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that we sow. That's a sacred trust the importance of which cannot be measured merely by the acres we protect, the miles of rivers we preserve, the energy we draw from public lands.

It's a child wandering amidst ancient redwoods, a love for science spurred as she looks skyward.

OBAMA: It's a young man running his hand along the walls at Ellis Island where his grandmother once carried her every possession and the hope of a new life.

It's a family hiking along canyons carved by ancient floods or mountains shaped by shifting continents finding peace in the beauty of the natural world.

These are experiences that enrich our lives and remind us of the blessing that we share. That was certainly the case for me. As many of you known, I spent much of my childhood in Hawaii, a place of extraordinary beauty and...


... we've got a Hawaiian in here?


... a place of extraordinary and one that's home to several national parks and historic sites. But before my eleventh birthday, my grandmother decided it was time for me to see the mainland. So my grandmother, my mother, my sister, and I all flew to Seattle, and we drove down the coast along the coast of California and then east to the Grand Canyon.

We headed across the Great Plains and to the Great Lakes before heading back west through Yellowstone.

It was an experience I will never forget. 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.

So thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.


Thank you, everybody.


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