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Babbitt's tour stops at Aquarium

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stopped in Tampa on Tuesday as part of a three-day Florida barnstorming tour designed to call attention to Republican-led environmental reforms now under consideration in the Congress.

"We're having tough times on Capitol Hill," Babbitt told the crowd of more than 100 in the lobby of the Florida Aquarium. He was referring to proposals to change a wide range of protections for clean water, wetlands and endangered wildlife.

Babbitt's comments came before a House vote Tuesday extending the ban on offshore oil drilling.

Wearing a red-checked shirt and maintaining eye contact with his audience, Babbitt began his comments by praising the newly completed Florida Aquarium, which he described as "this extraordinary place."

"It is a symbol of your commitment to education," he said.

Babbitt spoke to members of local Sierra Club and Audubon Society chapters, and to the casually interested aquarium visitors who seemed only partly aware a member of the president's Cabinet was there.

Babbitt said he had come to Florida to learn more about its recent success stories in preserving beaches and wetlands and protecting seabirds.

He likened Florida's environmental fervor to the habit of a recently converted born-again Christian who likes to lecture his more longstanding fellow believers.

Indulging in a bit of eco-humor, aquarium president John Racanelli then introduced a "sea-grass-roots" panel of local environmental players to converse with Babbitt.

They included Bell Fish Corp. operator Karen Bell, real estate developer Jack Wilson, Tampa Bay ship pilot John Timmel, Tampa Baywatch director Peter Clark, Cargill vice president Gray Gordon and Audubon Society member Gail Parsons, each of whom spoke briefly.

Babbitt's tour, a combination of fact finding, speechmaking and photo opportunities, has so far taken him from Miami to Pensacola, and included forest conservation and bone fishing. Today he is scheduled to walk the beaches of Fort Myers and tag and release manatees at Cape Canaveral.