By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 25 -- President Bush announced Monday that three isolated stretches of the Pacific Ocean are under consideration for national monument status, a designation that could provide vast new protections for the regions' fragile coral reefs, seabirds and ocean creatures.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Bush has asked Cabinet secretaries to assess the need for new protections for large regions of U.S. territorial waters.
"These areas are host to some of the world's most bio-diverse coral reefs and habitat, and some of the most interesting and compelling geological formations in all of our oceans," he said at a briefing near the president's ranch, where Bush is vacationing.
One area under consideration is the waters off the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, including the Mariana Trench, at 36,000 feet the deepest canyon in the world.
"It's like Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon rolled into one," said Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, an advocacy organization that has urged the designation.
According to Reichert, one survey found 19 types of whales and dolphins in the area, which has the highest density of sharks in the Pacific, and 250,000 seabirds.
Reichert's group has recommended that protections be imposed on about 115,000 square miles of ocean, which would make it the second-largest protected marine preserve in the world. Bush established the largest in 2006, when he gave similar distinction to 140,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The other two areas under consideration for designation are the Rose Atoll, which forms part of the territory of American Samoa, which Reichert said is known as a nesting ground for green sea turtles and a rare giant clam, and the oceans surrounding a series of islands and atolls in the central Pacific.
While the three areas will be vetted for designation as a national monument or a marine sanctuary, many environmental experts believe the process will culminate with a grant of some protection for all of them. Reichert said the level of protection could vary. He called for a prohibition on both commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration.
Though environmentalists have been critical of Bush's record, his willingness to protect new ocean areas has gained him widespread praise.
Reichert said that if the same kind of protections Bush granted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands preserve are extended to the Northern Mariana Islands region, Bush will have established environmental protections for more of the Earth's surface than anyone in history.
"He will have led the nation into a new era of ocean conservation," he said.