By JULIET EILPERIN THE WASHINGTON POST
WASHINGTON-President Bush's vision for protecting two vast areas of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and mineral exploitation, a move that would constitute a major expansion of his environmental legacy, is running into dogged resistance both inside and outside the White House and has placed his wife and his vice president on opposite sides of the issue.
With less than three months before Bush's term ends, his top deputies are scrambling to try to execute a plan that would shield some of the world's most diverse underwater ecosystems. The original plan, which included four potential “marine monuments” and was well received by environmentalists, has already been scaled back.
Vice President Dick Cheney and some officials in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have argued that the plan could hurt the region's economy by barring fishing and energy exploration. First lady Laura Bush, along with a number of scientists and environmental advocates, has countered that preserving the region's natural attributes would attract tourism and burnish the president's record for history.
Laura Bush has asked for two briefings on the issue from White House staff members, and her aides have conferred with scientists who support the two designations.
“It's hard, but it should be,” said James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality and just returned from an overseas listening tour on the proposal. “These are big, consequential, national decisions that have international ramifications.”
While environmental groups have pilloried Bush over his approaches to climate change, forest management and air pollution, many marine experts give him credit for his ocean policies.
In 2006 he designated the nearly 140,000-square-mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, creating what at the time was the world's largest protected marine area. Scientists have advocated designating more such areas to protect them from the effects of overfishing, pollution and global warming, which are degrading oceans worldwide.
“There's pretty strong evidence that everyone will benefit from the establishment of no-take reserves,” said Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, adding that fish populations rebound both within the protected reserves and in nearby fishing grounds. “The administration made a major step forward in designating the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, but that one alone is not enough to protect the full range of places and habitats and species that need to be protected. It will be part of (Bush's) legacy, but his ocean and environmental legacy could be much, much more.”
Researchers and activists welcomed Bush's August memorandum asking Connaughton and the secretaries of defense, commerce and the interior to assess the two “marine conservation management areas” he might establish before leaving office.
One, in the central Pacific, would encompass an area known as the Line Islands and stretch about 2,000 miles from the Johnston Atoll to the Rose Atoll. The memo described the area as “isolated from population centers, mostly uninhabited” and supporting “endemic, depleted, migratory, endangered and threatened species of fish, giant clams, crabs, marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, migratory shorebirds and corals that are rapidly vanishing elsewhere in the world.”
The other area, in the western Pacific, would include the waters around two northern Mariana Islands and the 6.8-mile-deep Mariana Trench, the deepest ocean canyon in the world.
Both regions are treasure troves of biodiversity: Kingman Reef and other islands in the central Pacific area teem with sharks and other top predators; the Mariana Trench and its nearby islands are home to several species of rare beaked whales and the Micronesian megapode-an endangered bird that uses the heat from volcanic vents to incubate its eggs-as well as to mud volcanoes, pools of boiling sulfur and the greatest microbial diversity on Earth.
No one questions the ecological, biological and geological value of these sites, but supporters of protecting them-including Connaughton and advocacy organizations such as the Pew Environment Group-have faced serious opposition in convincing several key White House officials of the value of broad “no-take” reserves. Bush initially explored the idea of establishing other protected areas closer to U.S. shores, including one off the southeastern coast near a group of deep-sea corals and another in the Gulf of Mexico. After commercial and recreational fishing interests and oil companies objected, the administration decided to pursue existing resource-management plans in those areas instead.
Despite the islands' distance from the continental United States, the proposal to designate an area around the Northern Marianas-a U.S. commonwealth between Japan and Guam-has sparked considerable debate. Cheney and National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey have questioned the impact on the region's economy, a concern some local officials also raised.
In a June 9 letter to Bush, Juan Borja Tudela, mayor of the Marianas' most populous island, Saipan, argued that “the loss of extractive privileges of natural resources in over 115,000 square miles of water ... far outweigh any benefits” that a marine reserve would yield. Another group of local officials wrote to Bush on Sept. 15, saying that the designation “would deny and take away from us the management responsibility of hundreds of years of successful stewardship.”
The influential Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a fierce opponent of marine reserves that tried to block the Hawaii marine monument, has also worked to keep the Northern Marianas open to fishing. On Oct. 20, the council, which regulates fishing in U.S. waters in the far Pacific, passed a resolution saying it “is concerned about the magnitude of areas being discussed” and insisted that local residents be allowed to review any proposal before it becomes final.
There has been significantly less controversy over designating the Line Islands in the central Pacific; much of the region is federal territory and sparsely populated.
Connaughton-who held meetings last month in American Samoa, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan about the two proposals-said the administration is sensitive to the issues that Marianas officials have raised.
“The vice president is flagging something I had already laid out in our policy briefings,” Connaughton said. Officials in Saipan “want to make sure that local tourism concerns are going to be taken care of, which includes fishing off of Saipan. They're very interested in the potential of geothermal energy.”
But other island residents welcome the idea of a marine reserve, which would draw researchers and tourists to nearby diving spots. The Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands has endorsed it, and the Pew Environment Group has collected 6,500 signatures from residents who back the monument.
Joshua Reichert, the Pew group's managing director, said that if Bush designates the Mariana Trench and the surrounding area, he will have protected more square miles than any previous president.
“Protecting places like this is one of the few things a sitting president can do that will live on in posterity and be remembered long after the other decrees and orders have been forgotten,” Reichert said. “It would signal to the nation and the world that the sea needs to be treated as a threatened resource, and it will open up an era of global ocean conservation.”
Claudia McMurray, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, said the administration will be “working up until the last week” of Bush's term on the initiatives.
“While it would take a significant amount of work, we haven't ruled it out,” she said. “We feel fairly confident, scientifically, there are so many unique species in that area, from that standpoint, we think it's important to wall off as much as we can.”