President Bush today is expected to propose the creation of the world's largest marine sanctuary in a chain of uninhabited islands and atolls 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
"It's the ocean equivalent of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon all rolled into one," said Joshua Reichert, director of the environmental program of the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.
The area comprises 140,000 square miles of ocean dotted with dozens of coral reefs and tiny islands; it is a 1,400-mile-long, 100-mile-wide swath of pristine marine habitat larger than all U.S. national parks combined.
Currently a marine reserve, the area is considered an ecological jewel. It is a nesting and breeding site to more than 14 million seabirds and home to 7,000 marine and terrestrial species, more than a quarter of which are found nowhere else in the world. It is an important nesting area for the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle and home to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, of which only 1,300 remain.
There are 13 national marine sanctuaries in U.S. waters, and White House officials say this new one will be seven times as large as all of them combined. It is almost 100 years in the making, with U.S. presidents setting it apart with increasing levels of protection.
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the area a refuge to stop the slaughter of seabirds by Japanese poachers who took the feathers for use in ladies' hats.
In the 1990s, overfishing caused the collapse of the lobster population, leading to the deaths of many monk seal pups who depend upon the crustaceans for food. In 2000, President Clinton increased the protections by issuing an executive order that created the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.
Today, Bush is expected to start the ball rolling to turn the reserve into a sanctuary, creating the strongest possible legal protection for it. After meetings in Hawaii and Washington to receive public comment and a congressional review period, White House officials hope the process will be completed by January.
The proposal is expected to include the phasing out of fishing and other commercial activity over five years.
The sanctuary will be overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The proposal has strong support in Hawaii from the state government and native Hawaiians. It is home to ancient Hawaiian religious and archaeological sites.
Although the majority of the islands will be closed to all but scientific researchers, a public visitation center will be created at Midway Islands, the scene of an important World War II battle. The plan is to use its old military buildings to accommodate groups of visitors.if(ScriptsLoaded) stInit();