Bush In Historic Marine Conservation Move

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President Bush plans to designate three remote Pacific island chains as national monuments. The move will mark the largest marine conservation effort in history.


Tomorrow, President Bush is expected to announce that he's creating three vast ocean reserves way out in the Pacific. They'll be designated as marine national monuments, and they will encompass more territory than the state of California. For a president not known for being an environmentalist, this is a significant part of President Bush's conservation legacy. Joining us to talk about this is NPR's Richard Harris. More territory than California? That's a lot of space. Where is this?

RICHARD HARRIS: It absolutely is. And it's way, way out there. The first of these three spaces is the Northern Mariana Islands which are north of Guam. So we're, you know, get to Guam and you're only beginning your trip out there. But this includes the Marianas Trench which is the deepest part of the world's ocean. You can take the Mount Everest and put it into Marianas Trench and it would disappear under the ocean's surface. We're talking a really dramatic structure. And that's one reason they're protecting it. It's not just because of the fish and so on, but it's just this amazing geological and geographical site. So that's the first one.

The second one is closer to American Samoa. It's an atoll, called Rose Atoll, which is apparently this gorgeous pink coral area that has got this - is really pristine and untouched, and it's just supposedly a fantastic place if you could, again, ever get out there to see it. And the third one is part of the U.S. Central Pacific islands. Again, these are scattered over thousands and thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, and there are seven islands in total. And the idea is these marine preserves are sort of the first 50 miles of sea around each one of these islands, and the same is true of the other places, so, yeah...

NORRIS: You've done such a good job of describing this, I can almost picture all of these areas. Two quick questions. Can the president do this with just a stroke of a pen? And what does this mean for these protected areas?

HARRIS: Yeah, the answer is he can. Teddy Roosevelt actually first used the Antiquities Act back in 1906 to create protected areas. And in fact, President Bush used the same act back in June of 2006 to create a similar reserve in Hawaii, somewhat smaller sized. This is - in total, this is even bigger than the reserve he created in Hawaii. And he got such good response for doing that, he decided to do it again. And the answer is: It's kind of like a national monument on dry land which is, they are protected, you can't extract stuff by-and-large, there's no commercial fishing allowed...

NORRIS: No commercial fishing, yeah.

HARRIS: There's no mining allowed, almost. There are a few little potential loopholes for doing a little bit of fishing. But basically, it's - the idea is to really protect this for posterity.

NORRIS: So, you said that President Bush got good marks when he did this near Hawaii. What do conservationists think of this?

HARRIS: They are generally quite happy with this because it vastly expands marine protected areas. The oceans are very under-protected compared with the land. Some - even with these huge additions to ocean protection, it's still less than a hundredth-of-a-percent, or about maybe two-hundredths-of-a-percent of oceans are protected. It's tiny. One thing that conservationists notice is that he could have made these reserves go out to 200 miles, which is the federal limit, and he decided just to keep it to 50 miles. So there's certainly room for expansion, a little elbow room. But generally, I think people are really happy.

NORRIS: Just quickly, on land, a national monument is almost an invitation for tourists to take to the road and actually go see these places. Likely to happen in this case, even though they're so remote?

HARRIS: Not likely to happen because they are so remote. I think it's really hard to get out there. Most of these islands are actually uninhabited. And so even if you could get out there - there are volcanoes, essentially, by-and-large and you could, you know, maybe pitch a tent if you're lucky, but basically, you probably just stay on a boat. So they are way out there. They're really to protect the land for the creatures that live there much less for us to enjoy, except knowing that they're there should be a sense of enjoyment for us.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, thanks so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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