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Two years ago, President Bush won high praise from a group that's been largely critical of him, environmentalists. They were elated after Mr. President declared a huge area near Hawaii as a protected marine monument. But the White House is now trying to secure the president's place in history with a similar preserve elsewhere in the Pacific. Only this time, as NPR's Richard Harris reports, the political sailing isn't so smooth.
RICHARD HARRIS: The heart of the new marine monument would be in U.S. territorial waters north of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands. Ike Cabrerra, from the island of Saipan, is one of just a handful of people on earth who have ever made it to the north end of the island chain.
Mr. IKE CABRERRA: There's no place in the world compared to this area.
HARRIS: What do the islands look like?
Mr. CABRERRA: Most of the islands are volcanos that became islands. So, most of the islands that you to go there, there'll be live volcano there.
HARRIS: The waters are rich with undisturbed sea life and home to some of the world's most majestic underwater geology, including the deepest canyon in the ocean, the Mariana Trench. But all is not perfect in paradise. While locals like Cabrerra support a marine preserve, his elected officials do not.
So he traveled to Washington last week to lobby for the protected area. His traveling companion, Andrew Salas, explains that the politicians don't object to conservation, but they are upset with the federal government. It seems Uncle Sam recently took control of immigration policy for the Northern Marianas and also instituted the federal minimum wage.
Mr. ANDREW SALAS: So, this awesome idea to protect those islands has come in at the wrong time, and everyone thought, oh, another federal intervention.
HARRIS: So Salas and Cabrerra went to the White House to plead for complete protection for an area the size of Arizona. They brought with them petitions signed by businesses, school kids, and 6,000 local residents of an island that has only 10,000 voters. Salas argues that the protected area isn't just good for the environment, but for tourism, which would boost businesses like his. He owns the Hawaii Bar and Grill on Saipan.
Mr. SALAS: I'm actually going to change the name of that thing as soon as this thing gets declared. I'm going to make it the Mariana Trench Bar and Grill.
HARRIS: But to declare complete success, the conservation group will not only have to trump the local politicians. Other interest groups have also been marching into the White House with requests to argue against a fully protected monument. For example, Gordon Robertson of the American Sportfishing Association pleaded his organization's case.
Mr. GORDON ROBERTSON (Vice President, American Sportsfishing Association): You know, let's not make a designation and foreclose this recreational fishing right up front because it is compatible with conservation, and it is easily controlled.
HARRIS: The huge Hawaiian monument designated two years ago bans fishing. That did not sit well with Robertson.
Mr. ROBERTSON: I would like to think that if that opportunity presented itself again, it would be done differently.
HARRIS: One option is the White House might not fully protect the area off the Northern Marianas, even though it's so remote, there's essentially no fishing there today. And the same could be true for other sites in the Pacific that the White House is also considering. James Connaughton, who's in charge of this issue at the White House, says the potential conflicts aren't just fishing, but include possible military uses, cultural activities, and possibly mining and energy development.
Mr. JAMES CONNAUGHTON (Chairman, White House Council on Environmental Quality): And so what we're trying to do is sort out where there are, in fact, some conflicting uses and sort out where those concerns don't actually exist.
HARRIS: So, that could mean scaling back the size of some of the proposed preserves or not offering complete protection everywhere. Jay Nelson at the Pew Environment Group said so little of the ocean is undisturbed, he wants the White House to fully protect as much as it possibly can.
Mr. JAY NELSON (Director, Pew Environment Group): They run the risk, if they start listening to too many constituencies, of making, essentially, everyone unhappy.
HARRIS: And at this point, time is running short. Connaughton said, in the end, he may hand off all the work he has done to the Obama administration. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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