hide captionA yellow tang near the Northern Marianas Island of Maug. The waters around this area could possibly be protected from fishing and economic development according to a proposal under review by the White House.
NOAA, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, Photographer: R. Schroeder
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.
hide captionPresident Bill Clinton signs an order to create Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in Utah while sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Sept. 18, 1996, while Vice President Al Gore watches. The area holds one of the largest known U.S. coal reserves, which is now off limits for mining.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images
President Bill Clinton signs an order to create Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in Utah while sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Sept. 18, 1996, while Vice President Al Gore watches. The area holds one of the largest known U.S. coal reserves, which is now off limits for mining.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images
The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, authorizes the president to single-handedly designate any federal public lands as national monuments.
Its creation was motivated by the looting of archaeological sites in the Southwest in the late 1800s. At that time, archaeologists realized that historical sites were being plundered and the artifacts disappearing into private collections or overseas museums.
The brief act — it's only four paragraphs long — was initially intended to protect just small archaeological sites, but it has since been interpreted to give presidents the power to set aside parcels of federal land of unlimited size and to restrict logging, hunting, grazing and mining on these sites.
Since 1906, 13 presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have used the authority of the Antiquities Act to proclaim 125 national monuments covering nearly 100 million acres of federal public lands. But such unilateral power has created fierce political brawls. Here are a few of the high — and low — points in the history of the Antiquities Act.
1906: A Bill Is Born
Under President Theodore Roosevelt's aggressive conservationism, the Antiquities Act was passed. Roosevelt used it to designate the 1,000-foot rock monolith Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first national monument. He set aside 17 more natural and cultural landmarks while president.
1943: Raising a Ruckus
The first big opposition to the act came after President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the wildlife reserve Jackson Hole, Wyo., a national monument. Congress had refused to expand Grand Teton National Park because, in the words of Sen. Henry Ashurst of Arizona, "the other States are not going to put over on Wyoming something that her two senators do not want." Wyoming's congressmen had favored state and local control of the area and were angered by what they saw as Roosevelt's circumvention of the federal system of checks and balances.
Congress passed a bill to abolish Jackson Hole National Monument, but Roosevelt vetoed it, and the battle over the land continued until the end of the decade. In 1950, Congress gave in and added most of the monument into Grand Teton National Park, but it also banned the creation of any future national monuments in Wyoming without Congress's approval.
The battle, however, brought up two recurring tensions throughout the history of the Antiquities Act — between Congress and the president, and between the president and the states. Presidents' unilateral use of the act has often been challenged as a circumvention of democratic processes — that is, congressmen have no opportunity to speak for their constituents on the issue. And states sometimes are opposed to the creation of national monuments within their borders, as designations sometimes limit economic possibilities like mining and mineral leasing on the land. Often, though, they boost recreation and tourism. But presidents have defended their use of the Antiquities Act to cut through bureaucratic deadlock and protect vital natural areas under imminent threat.
1978: Changing the Stakes
President Jimmy Carter set aside the largest amount of land of any president to date — 56 million acres in Alaska — but not everyone was thrilled about it. Like FDR, he sidestepped Congress, which up to that point had failed to pass an Alaskan lands protection bill because Alaskans opposed it. Alaskans in the area were incensed, and citizens in Fairbanks even burned President Carter in effigy.
But Carter's executive order succeeded in breaking congressional deadlock, bringing opponents to recognize the need for compromise on an acceptable bill rather than no bill at all. After years of debate, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed in 1980, expanding protected land in Alaska. However, Carter would be the last president to date to make a national monument in Alaska. In the same act, Congress also said the Antiquities Act couldn't be used to designate huge monuments in Alaska without the approval of Congress.
1996: Springing Plans on Utah
President Bill Clinton designated a series of rock formations and canyons as the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in Utah. But some Utahans were none too happy about this, as it nixed plans for a coal mine. State politicians first learned of the plans for the national monument from a newspaper article only nine days before its public announcement, according to a statement by Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt. And to top it off, Clinton managed to offend Utahans by signing the executive proclamation to protect Utah while sitting on the Arizona side of the Grand Canyon.
But Clinton wasn't looking for the approval of Utahans; he knew he wouldn't win Utah in the upcoming election. Instead, the move won him favor across the rest of the country, says Destry Jarvis, who worked with the National Park Service during the Clinton administration. Clinton went on to designate more national monuments than any other president.
2006: A Single Burial Site
President George W. Bush exercised his first use of the Antiquities Act to protect a piece of land smaller than a city block — the African Burial Ground in Manhattan. Together with the surrounding area, the monument contains the remains of an estimated 15,000 Africans buried in the 17th and 18th centuries.
From the 1690s to the 1790s, free and enslaved Africans who died in the area, which was then called New Amsterdam, were buried in this unmarked cemetery at the city's outskirts. The site's existence wasn't discovered again until 1991, however, when excavation for a planned federal office building uncovered the graves. According to the U.S. National Park Service, the site has been called one of the most significant archaeological finds in U.S. history.