September 4, 2008

Bush’s Blue Legacy

President Bush may be on the brink of doing something at odds with his record as one of the worst environmental stewards ever to inhabit the White House. He is considering setting aside three vast, remote corners of the Pacific Ocean for protection .

In a memo last month, Bush directed his administration to develop a plan for creating sanctuaries in the waters around the Northern Mariana Islands, including the Mariana Trench, the world's deepest; Rose Atoll in American Samoa; and parts of a long, sprawling collection of reefs and atolls known as the Line Islands.

The waters are as isolated and pristine as any part of the globe can be these days, home to countless species of fish and plants, rare turtles and seabirds and glorious reefs. The Mariana Trench is a staggering place; it could swallow Everest. The islands are mostly coral flyspecks, but if the waters around them are protected to the fullest extent possible - to the 200-mile territorial limit - the sanctuaries would total nearly 900,000 square miles. That is bigger than Mexico.

Bush has done something nearly as spectacular once before. In June 2006, over the strident objections of some commercial-fishing interests, he created the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, a no-fishing sanctuary covering 140,000 square miles .

That action won wide praise - except from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac), one of eight federal agencies assigned to protect fish and fishing in U.S. waters. Wespac is notorious among environmental groups as a chronic enabler of reckless commercial fishing.

Wespac's executive director, Kitty Simonds, is condemning this new idea as punishment of the "brown and yellow people" of American Samoa and the Northern Marianas. In fact, her agency's customary attitude - fish here, fish now - ignores the strong local support across the Pacific for farsighted stewardship of imperiled oceans, a resource that belongs to future generations as much as it does to all of us.

We hope Bush resists the forces of exploitation and closes as much as possible of those stretches of the vast blue Pacific to human meddling. That would be an achievement for the ages. All we can say is: Go for it, Mr. President.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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