MICHELE NORRIS, host.

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

NOAH ADAMS, host.

And, I'm Noah Adams.

NPR has learned that President Bush is weighing the creation of what could become the biggest collection of ocean reserves on the planet. If the idea moves ahead, environmentalists say it would be one of the most significant actions of conservation in U.S. history. And they say it could give President Bush what you might call a historic blue legacy.

NPR's John Nielsen has this exclusive report.

JOHN NIELSEN: Last summer environmental activists were invited to an unusual closed door meeting at the White House. The meeting was organized by the Bush administration's Council on Environmental Quality, or CEQ. Some who attended were extremely harsh critics of the president's overall environmental record. But that was not the topic on the table. Instead, officials from the CEQ announced that they were putting together a list of potential new marine reserves. Then they invited the environmentalists to help them out. Jack Sobel of the non-profit Ocean Conservancy was there. He says the offer came with a few restrictions.

JACK SOBEL(Ocean Conservancy): They wanted things that they could do before they left office. They wanted things that they could do politically without a tremendous blowback. But the third thing that we were told was they wanted things that were significant from a conservation perspective. They wanted to make big steps, not small ones.

NIELSEN: The environmentalists took this offer seriously because President Bush had already created one of the largest marine reserves on Earth. In 2006, he invoked a little known law called the Antiquities Act of 1906 and turned the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands into a gigantic national monument. At a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, President Bush noted that the monument covers 140,000 square miles.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: To put this area in context, this national monument is more than a hundred times larger than Yosemite National Park, larger than 46 of our 50 states, and more that seven times larger than all our national marine sanctuaries combined. This is a big deal.

NIELSEN: And now the White House is considering an even bigger deal. A spokesman for the Council on Environmental Quality told NPR that the White House is looking at the idea of creating new reserves in American territorial waters but declined to talk about the details. But scientists involved in the process say an early list of roughly 30 potential monuments has now been shortened to a semi-final group of five areas that the president could protect by using the Antiquities Act. The smallest of these potential new monuments would protect a tiny coral atoll near the end of the Samoan island chain in the Pacific. The biggest, also in the Pacific, would cover roughly 600,000 square miles. That's about four times bigger than the Hawaiian monument.

Mr. JIM GREENWOOD: (Biotechnology Industry Association) And we think these would all be terrific additions to what is already probably President Bush's greatest environmental legacy.

NIELSEN: Jim Greenwood is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who has close ties to the White House. He is now the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Association, but he's also an influential figure in the world of marine conservation. Greenwood says he's been urging the president to protect big parts of the ocean for years.

Mr. GREENWOOD: When I was in Congress, every time I got alone with the president on Air Force One or in the limo at some event, I would talk and talk and talk to him about the oceans and about what he could do in terms of significant presidential acts.

NIELSEN: Soon that lobbying may pay off in a big way. For example, one of the proposals on the short list would protect a huge chunk of ocean near the Pacific island of Guam. Jay Nelson of the nonprofit Pew Environment Group says the area is famous for its sharks, its stormy waters, and the Marianna Trench.

Mr. JAY NELSON: (Pew Environment Group) Which is the deepest point in the world. It's actually about 36,000-feet deep and it's deep enough that if you dropped Mt. Everest into it, there would be a mile of water above Mt. Everest.

NIELSEN: Nelson says it's important to protect this area before commercial fishing boats find a way to exploit it. That same argument is being made in favor of two other potential marine monuments. One would protect a massive network of deep water corals found off the coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The other would protect coral reefs and ridges found mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mike Hirschfeld of the non-profit group Oceana says the time to act is now.

Mr. MIKE HIRSCHFELD (Oceana): Because once somebody's fishing there, it will be a difficult, contentious fight, and it's simpler to just set these areas aside when there isn't a problem rather than wait for one to develop.

NIELSEN: Rumors that these plans are being laid have already triggered some opposition, however. Recently, members of Congress from states near the Gulf of Mexico floated and then withdrew legislative language that would have blocked new marine monuments to protect the fishing and oil industries. And out in the Pacific, local politicians and commercial interests don't like the plan to protect the waters found near the Mariana Trench.

John Gourley is an environmental consultant on the Island of Saipan who's worked for the fishing industry.

Mr. JOHN GOURLEY (Micronesian Environmental Service): 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. And there's just really no reason to slam the door.

NIELSEN: White House officials say there will be public hearings if the president moves ahead, even though the Antiquities Act does not require them. Meanwhile, environmentalists are urging the White House to seize the day, arguing that this president has an opportunity to create a historic blue legacy.

Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute says there's a chance that President George W. Bush could end up being known as the Teddy Roosevelt of the oceans.

Dr. ELLIOTT NORSE (Marine Conservation Biology Institute): And more. President Roosevelt protected a total of about 230 million acres in national parks, national forests, national wildlife refugees, etc. President Bush could choose between now and the end of his administration to protect more area than President Roosevelt.

NIELSEN: The decision could come within the next month.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

ADAMS: And you can see a map of the five marine areas the White House is thinking about, along with photos from the deep ocean at our Web site. You can also read about some of the controversies past presidents have stirred up with the Antiquities Act. All that is at npr.org.

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