New Hawaiian national monument: Bush’s strategic sacrifice

Bush’s declaration of a national monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is being hailed by world environmentalists, and certainly impresses by its sheer size—1,400 miles long and 100 miles wide. “To put this area in context, this national monument is more than 100 times larger than Yosemite Park,” Bush said. “It’s larger than 46 of our 50 states, and more than seven times larger than all our national marine sanctuaries combined. This is a big deal.”

The president’s power to designate this high level of protection without Congressional approval derives from the 1906 National Antiquities Act. Most had expected the archipelago to win a lower level of protection under the National Marine Sanctuary Act, which is open to public comment and challenges from Congress. That process already had gone on for five years and could have continued for another full year.

Local ecologists were of course pleased. The Native Hawaiian-environmentalist alliance, Kahea, has long backed a national monument rather than a sanctuary, because it more closely resembles the traditional Hawaiian concept of a pu’uhonua — a pure refuge, according to Kahea director Cha Smith.

“This is our treasure,” said Naomi Sodetani, communications specialist with the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (a preliminary protected area created by President Clinton). “The area is still healthy, relatively healthy, the challenge is to keep it healthy.” But she admitted that because the area is so remote, it is often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Under Bush’s decree, fishing must cease in the zone within five years, and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council is one group which is protesting the declaration, arguing that sustainable fishing is possible within the reserve. (CNN, June 17; Cyber Diver News Network, June 15)

Significantly, there is no oil in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This succinct editorial in the Roanoke Times (June 20) throws some much-needed cold water in the face of Bush’s new and unlikely environmentalist boosters:

A jewel of the Pacific won’t clear the air
President Bush’s new monument boosts his environmental record but doesn’t repair it.

President Bush has demonstrated little interest in the great outdoors except where his friends want to exploit the public’s precious natural resources. At least he had not until last week, when he designated a massive national monument in the Pacific Ocean.

The 3 million acres of coral and ocean around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a worthy addition to the nation’s protected lands, but whether the decision marks a newly kindled presidential passion for pristine wilderness remains to be seen.

Bush’s order preserves a stunning gift for the future. The monument will protect about 7,000 species that live in its waters, prohibiting nearly all fishing there.

Americans will not measure its value in terms of visitors per year. It will be a locus of biodiversity seen by few. Its worth will lie in the knowledge that unspoiled places exist and that the nation preserves them.

Not that Bush has found the same argument persuasive in other contexts. He and his congressional supporters have pushed hard for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at times invoking its remoteness as a mitigating factor for wells and pipelines. As long as no one suspects there is oil under the coral, it will probably remain safe.

Nor have other existing national monuments, parks, wildernesses and forests fared well under Bush’s watch. He and Congress have been draining resources that pay for protection, threatening to end more than a century of environmental stewardship.

Visitors pay more, commercial interests develop inside parks, industries extract natural resources, and still funding comes up short. The Blue Ridge Parkway, the most-visited national park, has a $200 million backlog of maintenance projects.

Which will be Bush’s environmental legacy? If he returns to his old way, people might think his decision for the waters near Hawaii was nothing more than a cynical political distraction. One monument, no matter how spectacular, cannot alone offset the environmental assault of the last five years.

Actually, Bush has not even deviated from his “old way.” The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, for all its impressive size, can be seen as the proverbial sugar coating on the noxious pill of Bush’s core policies. The generally gushy media coverage of the declaration has not noted that it comes just as the Bush administration is attempting to push through an unprecendented sell-off of big chunks of the National Forest system. And the Republicans, with full White House approval, are still, of course, relentlessly trying to open the ANWR.

Ironically, the monumental Hawaiian declaration also came mere days before the Supreme Court—with Bush’s two appointments, John Roberts and Samuel Alito Jr., in the majority—gutted the Clean Water Act. (Detroit Free Press, June 20)

Hopefully, this contradiction will serve as a wake-up call to fishermen, farmers, lumberjacks and others who have been taken in by the anti-environmental Wise Use agenda that they are being used as cannon fodder by the big money boys and the Republican party. They will be thrown overboard in the interests of politics when push comes to shove. The oil interests—who are perceived (accurately) as critical to continued US global dominance—will not.