Plans for Hawaiian Monument Laid in 1999

Robert Siegel talks with Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton. In 1999, Babbitt began work to declare the northwestern islands of Hawaii a national monument, which President Bush has just done.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We've been trying to trace the history of the idea of making the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and all the ocean around them a national monument, and we get as far back as 1999 at the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Secretary of the Interior then was Bruce Babbitt, who joins us now. Welcome back.

Mr. BRUCE BABBITT (Former Secretary of the Interior): Oh, it's a pleasure to come back out of ancient history.

SIEGEL: Take us back to the days of yore in 1999 and this idea. Who actually pitched the idea of making a national monument out of this patch?

Mr. BABBITT: Well, I put together a task force in the Interior Department looking at possible public lands for monuments. We did 15 or 20 of them. President Clinton was getting really interested and so we said, we ought to start looking at water because the seas really are endangered. And then we began looking at the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

And I said to this group, draw a line around the territorial jurisdiction of the United States because it was clear that all of these atolls were really about coral reefs. I took that map to President Clinton and said here is a national monument. You ought to do it. At that point, the Hawaii delegation intervened and said wait a minute. So we compromised on legislation creating a national marine sanctuary, which was sort of one step below a monument.

SIEGEL: But they were saying wait a minute because you were going to be declaring what they regarded as fishing waters?

Mr. BABBITT: Yeah, that's exactly right. The fishing industry looms large in Hawaii and Senator Inouye looked me in the eye and said, Bruce, I can't let this happen. To which I responded, well, I'm going to the president. To which he responded, well, I'm going to write some legislation. And that's kind of how it came about.

SIEGEL: Well, obviously the Clinton administration ended without this monument being declared. The Hawaiians prevailed.

Mr. BABBITT: Well, there was a nice compromise because President Clinton proclaimed a national marine sanctuary, which is about 80 percent of the way toward a national monument, which closed the area to most but not all fishing and set in motion a study of what kind of permanent protection there out to be.

And to her credit, the governor of Hawaii is really the person I believe who really got this going. She has stepped forward in the last year or two and said it's time to give it complete protection.

SIEGEL: Now, one lesson that one might take away from the seven-year gestation of this idea from the Department of the Interior in 1999 until now is that even a rather small fishing interest in an area is enough to keep things blocked and also to demand a payout, which is going to be one provision of this, that there should be compensation to the people who are fishing in the area.

Mr. BABBITT: Yeah, that seems to be the American way. You've got to finally gather a consensus in which everybody gets their piece. Call it extortion or compensation, as you will.

SIEGEL: Your word, not mine, Secretary Babbitt. But it worked out in the end.

Mr. BABBITT: Precisely. There's a long gestation period for a lot of these ideas. If you go to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, wherever, at the beginning you'll see just a few people and an idea. If it's a good idea, it will have its time and this one has. And it's a fine achievement.

SIEGEL: Well, Bruce Babbitt, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. BABBITT: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Former Secretary of the Interior and before that, governor of Arizona, Bruce Babbitt.

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