The Bush administration is considering launching one of the biggest conservation programs in U.S. history.
If implemented, President George W. Bush could, with the stroke of a pen, protect vast stretches of U.S. territorial waters from fishing, oil exploration and other forms of commercial development. The initiative could also create some of the largest marine reserves in the world — far larger than national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.
The White House is thinking about taking "big steps, not small ones," says Jack Sobel, a senior scientist at the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group.
A spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality confirmed that the administration is considering the initiative but declined to discuss details, saying they are still under review.
The idea is drawing strong support from conservationists who typically have been harshly critical of the Bush administration's overall environmental record. But some of the possible reserves are already attracting opposition from local leaders and industry groups and from some members of Congress.
National Monuments in the Sea
Conservationists say that CEQ officials last year invited a small number of ocean advocates to an unusual, closed-door meeting to discuss the idea. The White House asked them to help identify potential reserves in waters within the United States' "exclusive economic zone," which extends 200 nautical miles out from the mainland and U.S.-owned islands around the world.
The idea, says Sobel, was to highlight areas where President Bush could create "marine monuments" under the Antiquities Act of 1906. This law gives the president broad powers to protect areas of "historic or scientific interest" without congressional approval.
Administration officials said they wanted things they could do before they left office, says Sobel. "They [also] wanted things that they could do without tremendous political blow back ... [but] would have a conservation impact."
The groups took the invitation seriously, in part because Bush, in 2006, used the Antiquities Act to create one of the world's largest marine reserves, around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The groups — along with government agencies and other interested parties – ultimately developed a "wish list" that included about 30 potential marine monuments. They ranged from small reserves in U.S. coastal waters to vast swaths around U.S. territories in the distant Central Pacific. The candidates stretched "from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Dutch Harbor, Alaska" and beyond, says Jay Nelson of the Washington-based Pew Environment Group.
On the Short List
The White House has now shortened that list to about five finalists, say scientists involved in the process. The list hasn't been released to the public, and a CEQ spokesman says changes are still possible. But conservation groups have identified some of the leading nominees.
By far the most ambitious proposal is to protect more than 600,000 square miles around a number of small, mostly uninhabited islands in the Central Pacific. The islands — including Palmyra, Howland and Baker — are surrounded by biologically rich coral reefs and are home to huge seabird colonies. If implemented, the reserve would be among the largest in the world and about three times as large as the Hawaiian monument.
Another proposal calls for protecting more than 100,000 square miles of notoriously rough waters around the Northern Mariana Islands, in the Western Pacific. The area includes the 36,000-foot-deep Marianas Trench.
"It's the deepest point in the world," says Nelson. "If you dropped Mt. Everest in it, there would be a mile of water above the mountain."
Another proposal is to place a 500-square-mile reserve around Rose Atoll in the South Pacific east of Australia.
Nelson says it's important to protect these areas before fishing or energy companies begin to exploit them. The same argument is being made in favor of two other potential monuments closer to the U.S. mainland. One would protect a massive network of deep-water corals off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The other would protect coral reefs and ridges found mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Once somebody's fishing there it will be a difficult and contentious fight," says Mike Hirschfeld of the nonprofit group Oceana. "It's simpler to set these areas aside when there isn't a problem rather than wait for one to develop."
A 'Blue Legacy' for President Bush
An array of ocean advocates — both Democrats and Republicans — are urging the White House to forge ahead with the proposals, saying it would enable President Bush to build a "blue legacy" that would make him a major figure in conservation history.
"These would all be terrific additions to what is already President Bush's greatest environmental legacy," the Hawaiian monument, says James Greenwood, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, who now heads the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Greenwood, who has close ties to the White House, says that he has been lobbying Bush for years to take major action on ocean conservation.
Bush could become the "Teddy Roosevelt of the seas," conservationists say. President Theodore Roosevelt protected about 230 million acres in new parks and forests, notes Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Washington. Bush has the chance "to protect more," he says.
Typically, creating marine reserves requires the approval of Congress and an extensive public comment process. By using the Antiquities Act, the White House can sidestep those requirements. President Bill Clinton, for instance, used the law to unilaterally protect a huge chunk of Utah, angering many state and local politicians. But a CEQ spokesman said that if the current initiative moves forward, it will very likely include some kind of public comment process.
There is already opposition to several of the potential reserves. This month, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said he didn't like the plan to protect corals in the Gulf of Mexico, arguing that the economic consequences are "potentially grave," particularly for the fishing industry. Members of Congress from states along the Gulf also floated, and then withdrew, legislative language that would have prevented the government from spending money to establish the monument.
Out in the Pacific, local politicians and commercial interests also are voicing opposition to a Marianas Trench monument.
"We don't even have a voting member in Congress, and we've got the president of the U.S., who basically could slam the door on any future potential that is there," says John Gourley, an environmental consultant on the island of Saipan, who has worked for the fishing industry. "[We] should be able to use these resources in an environmentally sensitive manner."
A decision on the initiative could come within a month.