WASHINGTON – Parts of three remote and uninhabited Pacific island chains are being set aside by President George W. Bush as national monuments to protect them from oil and gas extraction and commercial fishing in what will be the largest marine conservation effort in history.
The three areas — totaling some 195,274 square miles — include the Mariana Trench and the waters and corals surrounding three uninhabited islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll in American Samoa and seven islands strung along the equator in the central Pacific Ocean.
Each location harbors unique species and some of the rarest geological formations on Earth — from the world's largest land crab to a bird that incubates its eggs in the heat of underwater volcanoes.
All will be protected as national monuments — the same status afforded to statues and cultural sites — under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law allows the government to immediately phase out commercial fishing and other extractive uses.
However, recreational fishing, tourism and scientific research with a federal permit could still occur inside the three areas. The designations will also not conflict with U.S. military activities or freedom of navigation, White House officials said.
"These locations are truly among the last pristine areas in the marine environment on Earth," said James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who added the resources the administration wanted preserved would be fully protected.
The president plans to make the designation official on Tuesday at a ceremony at the White House.
It will be the second time Bush has used the law to protect marine resources. Two years ago, the president made a huge swath of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, barring fishing, oil and gas extraction and tourism from its waters and coral reefs. At the time, that area was the largest conservation area in the world.
The three areas to be designated Tuesday are larger, and came with some opposition. Northern Mariana Islands government officials and indigenous communities initially objected to the monument designation, citing concerns about sovereignty, fishing and mineral exploration.
Environmentalists were hoping for more. The protected areas will extend 50 nautical miles off the coral reefs and atolls at the three monuments, which will be officially called the Marianas Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Advocacy groups were pushing for 200 nautical miles, the full extent of the U.S. exclusive economic zone. Commercial fishing will also still be allowed in the waters over the Mariana Trench, the world's deepest underwater canyon. The monument will only protect the rim of the canyon and its depths. At 36,201 feet the canyon is deeper than Mt. Everest is tall and five times the size of the Grand Canyon.
"Commercial fishing was not relevant to the resource we wanted to protect," Connaughton said. He also said the science did not support protecting the full 200 nautical miles.
The move is a boost to the environmental record of a president who has been criticized for not doing enough against air pollution and global warming. He also lifted a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama to hammer out how the areas will be managed, and to make sure the prohibitions are enforced.
"We and others in the environmental community have been at odds with this administration on lots of things, but if one looks at this one event it is a significant conservation event," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, which lobbied for the monuments' designation.
"In a more symbolic level, it sends a message that we have finally arrived at a point where we are beginning to think about the sea in the same way we have thought about the land — that there are special places under threat that need to be protected," Reichert said.
The protection of the Mariana Trench comes a century after President Theodore Roosevelt first protected the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908.