June 14, 2006

Northwest Hawaiian Islands to get monument status

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON -- The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands -- remnants of extinct submerged volcanoes far from Waikiki -- will become a vast U.S. national monument and nature sanctuary, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.

The monument designation, the first by President George W. Bush, means more than 120,000 square miles of Pacific waters, pinnacles, reefs and atolls will get immediate protection, the official said in a statement.

The protected area starts about 160 miles west of the inhabited Hawaiian island of Kauai and stretches nearly 1,200 miles from Nihoa Island in the east to Kure Atoll in the west.

The area includes the world's most remote and relatively undisturbed coral reef ecosystem, and supports more than 7,000 species, including more than 100 species unique to these islands, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Environment Division, which praised the White House decision.

Important species include the green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the only surviving marine mammal wholly dependent on coral reefs.

Bush was scheduled to announce the move at the White House on Thursday, but ecology watchdog groups were quick to offer kudos, while acknowledging that the Bush administration has not previously been noted for its environmental stewardship.

"The administration will have created the world's largest marine protected area and set aside one of the most pristine regions for generations to enjoy and to study," David Festa, director of the oceans program at Environmental Defense, said in a telephone interview.

Unlike the Washington Monument that stands within view of the White House, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Area is remote, uninhabited and difficult for ordinary citizens to visit, but Festa did not consider this a drawback.

"The technology of the 21st century is bringing the opportunity to use remote cameras and other audio-visual technology to really bring these areas into the living rooms of average Americans," Festa said.

The administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the plan before Bush's announcement, confirmed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to do just that.

"By declaring it a monument, we hope that this will bring the monument to every American, most of whom don't even know it exists," the official said by telephone. "More Americans have familiarity with the Galapagos (Islands off the South American coast) than they do with the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in their own backyard."