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Midway, a Protected Area, Is Also Underfunded

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Midway, a Protected Area, Is Also Underfunded

Environment

Midway, a Protected Area, Is Also Underfunded

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Bush got rare kudos from environmentalists earlier this year when he protected the northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine national monument. Now, the government plans to send tourists to see the amazing array of wildlife there, including hundreds of thousands of albatross.

But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, some conservationists say the birds face a risk that the government should fix first.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: If you take off from Honolulu and fly four hours northwest, you'll touch down on Midway, a cluster of three islets. This time of the year, most of the residents are albatross. Government biologist Beth Flint is there now. She says there are hundreds of thousands of them sitting on their eggs.

Ms. ELIZABETH FLINT (Biologist): I can see a Laysan albatross. He's carefully training the underside of his wing right now.

SHOGREN: Laysan albatross are elegant birds about the size of a goose, but with six-foot wingspans. Each year in late autumn, most of the world's albatross return to Midway, meet their lifelong mates and settle down to nest in the same spot as the year before. The parents take turns incubating the eggs and flying out to sea to feed. Meanwhile, young birds practice mating dances.

Ms. FLINT: It's a spectacular scene. They have a bunch of ritualized movements. They shake their head and whistle, and it's really fun.

SHOGREN: The scene would be idyllic if it weren't for the threat that faces thousands of Laysan albatross chicks when they hatch. They eat lead based paint that's chipping off World War II era military buildings on the island. Toxicologist Myra Finkelstein has traveled to the island four times in recent years to study problem.

Ms. MYRA FINKELSTEIN (Toxicologist): Their wings become sort of paralyzed and they can't use them, and we call that droop wing. At the end of the breeding season, the parents will leave, and expect that their chicks will within a few weeks fledge and follow behind them. But these chicks will never be able to fly no and will never fledge. They'll just on the island starve to death.

SHOGREN: Finkelstein says about 10,000 chicks are poisoned each year.

Ms. FINKELSTEIN: It's very sad that these chicks are ingesting this lead based paint, which is actually a very easy problem to fix.

SHOGREN: An environmental group, the American Bird Conservancy, has been pushing the federal government to fix the problem for years. Jennifer Arnold directs group's Seabird Program.

Ms. JENNIFER ARNOLD (American Bird Conservancy): We feel that because this is a national monument, the government should take responsibility and clean up the lead to protect the birds. Having a national wildlife refuge in a national monument where species that are recognized as important by the U.S. government are being killed on a regular basis just seems completely unreasonable.

SHOGREN: It's not a new problem. When the Navy packed up and moved on 10 years ago, it dismantled hundred of buildings and cleaned up lots of lead paint. But it left more than a hundred buildings behind to be used part of a new wildlife refuge run by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Marshall Jones is the agency's deputy chief.

Mr. MARSHALL JONES (Fish and Wildlife Service): A couple of years ago, we estimated that it would cost about $5 million to remove all the lead paint.

SHOGREN: Jones says the agency hasn't been able to get its hands on that kind of money, not even after Midway became part of a national monument. Refuge managers have tried interim fixes. They put drop cloths around some of the buildings to try to trap paint chips.

Mr. JONES Some of the fabric we used just started to deteriorate in the sun and the weather, and furthermore, in some cases, the birds decided they would nest right on top of the fabric.

SHOGREN: And their young kept eating the paint chips. So the refuge staff came up with a plan to have island staff moonlight as clean up crews. Starting in August, four workers a day use paint scrapers, special vacuums and pressure washers to clean the buildings. At the rate they're going, Jones says it will take several years to complete the cleanup.

Mr. JONES: We're very concerned about this. We know there's mortality, but the birds' population as a whole is doing extremely well in spite of this.

SHOGREN: Jones says the lead poisoning problem shouldn't deter Americans from visiting. Small groups of tourists can go there starting next summer.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News

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