ARI SHAPIRO, host:
The deepest canyon on earth is about to become a protected area. The Mariana Trench is part of three new marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean. President Bush plans to create those monuments today. With the stroke of a pen, he'll protect a total area larger than California. These preserves are designed to conserve areas untouched by humans. NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS: For more than a hundred years, when we've thought of protecting the Earth's natural wonders, we've mostly thought about the stuff on land, places we can see. But some of the Earth's truly spectacular sights are actually underwater, such as the Mariana Trench out near the island of Guam.
Mr. JOSH REICHERT (Pew Environment Group): It's the sole place on Earth that has huge active mud volcanoes, one more than 31 miles across.
HARRIS: Josh Reichert at the Pew Environment Group has been making the case for preserving this unique volcanic landscape in perpetuity.
Mr. REICHERT: The Trench contains the second boiling pool of liquid sulfur ever discovered. The first one is on one of Jupiter's moons.
HARRIS: And you want exotic wildlife? You got it.
Mr. REICHERT: It has the only known living bird which uses volcanic heat to incubate its eggs.
HARRIS: That would be the Micronesian Megapode. And now Reichert will get his wish to preserve this area.
Mr. Bush is expected to declare much of the Trench and waters around some nearby islands as a marine national monument. In fact, that's one of three monuments the president plans to establish today. A second is around Rose Atoll near American Samoa, and the third is the sea surrounding seven islands, US territories, scattered way out in the Pacific. Their remoteness is actually what makes them special.
Mr. ENRIC SALA (Marine Ecologist, National Geographic Society): These places are so pristine that they are like time machines that take us hundreds of years in the past.
HARRIS: Enric Sala at the National Geographic Society is one of the very few people on Earth who has actually had a chance to swim around some of these remote islands, which are surrounded by coral reefs.
Mr. SALA: You jump in the water and immediately you are surrounded by 10, 15 sharks that are very curious, and many other fishes that have probably never seen humans before. So it is like the sensation that Darwin must have had when he stepped into the Galapagos for the first time.
HARRIS: And this is not simply a joyful experience for the occasional visitor. For science, Sala says it is an exceptionally rare opportunity to visit a reef that's at the peak of its health.
Mr. SALA: These places are the last instruction manual we have to understand how coral reefs function, and also to understand the magnitude of our impact on these coral reefs.
HARRIS: Ideally, Sala says they can be used as a model to rebuild reefs elsewhere around the world. Now, in 2006, when President Bush created another marine monument near Hawaii, he won strong praise from conservationists. Diane Regas, at the Environmental Defense Fund, is now delighted that the president has decided to more than double the size of marine protected areas with his latest declaration, with the four marine monuments together protecting 350,000 square miles.
Ms. DIANE REGAS (Managing Director, Oceans Program, Environmental Defense Fund): We've been working to preserve these areas because there's nowhere else like them on Earth. I think we'd call this a bigger-than-Texas-sized gift for all of us.
HARRIS: Josh Reichert at Pew is also is celebrating the actions of a president who is not exactly known for his environmentalism.
Mr. REICHERT: It's a monumental achievement. If you add up all the areas that have been protected over the course of the past two and a half years, it's far greater than any other person has ever done.
HARRIS: The ocean is so vast, these reserves save just the tiniest bit. But Reichert says it's an important bit. There is a lot of life and wonder in the ocean, and it's under more stress now than ever before. Richard Harris, NPR News.