President Bush today will create the world's largest marine protected area, a total of 140,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean surrounding a necklace of islands and atolls that stretch from the main Hawaiian Islands to Midway Atoll and beyond, senior administration officials said.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument will be larger than all of America's national parks combined. Fishing will be phased out, and the mining of coral for jewelry will be prohibited, along with other practices that can damage delicate reefs.
"With a stroke of a pen, the president not only can accomplish the single largest act of conservation in U.S. history, but he can inspire the American public on the broader importance of our ocean and coastal environments," said a senior administration official who requested anonymity so as to not upstage Bush's announcement today.
The decision is a turnaround for the administration, which five years ago considered stripping more limited protections from the area that President Clinton had declared a coral reef ecosystem reserve. It's also a sharp departure for an administration that has pushed to privatize some federal lands and has designated less wilderness than most presidents over the last 40 years.
A turning point came in April, when Bush sat through a 65-minute private White House screening of a PBS documentary that unveiled the beauty of -- and perils facing -- the archipelago's aquamarine waters and its nesting seabirds, sea turtles and sleepy-eyed monk seals, all threatened by extinction.
The film seemed to catch Bush's imagination, according to senior officials and others in attendance. The president popped up from his front-row seat after the screening; congratulated filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the late underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau; and urged the White House staff to get moving on protecting these waters.
"He was enthusiastic," Cousteau said. "The show had a major impact on him, the way my father's shows had on so many people. I think he really made a discovery -- a connection between the quality of our lives and the oceans."
The northwest Hawaiian Islands are a collection of reefs and 10 points of emergent lands -- islands, atolls and pinnacles. Although the total emergent landmass is small, the isolation has kept these islands relatively undisturbed and increased their importance to wildlife.
About 14 million seabirds, including albatross and various species of terns, nest on the islands. Pods of spinner dolphins frolic in lagoons, leaping ahead of boats and making full twists in the air.
About 90% of Hawaii's green turtles nest in these remote beaches, as do nearly all monk seals. So far, scientists have identified about 7,000 species in the Hawaiian Islands, about one-third of which are found nowhere else in the world.
All of these islands are part of the state of Hawaii, except for Midway Atoll, the site of the historic World War II battle, which is a U.S. territory. The United States has the power to control fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 miles from the nearest point of land.
Bush's decision was strongly encouraged by Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican. She signed rules last year to ban fishing in state waters around these atolls and urged Bush to extend protections to federal waters.
Protection of the northwest Hawaiian Islands has emerged as a widely popular move, receiving more than 50,000 letters of support over the last five years. These islands have no resident fishermen who might be hurt by tightening rules. Only a remnant fleet of eight commercial boats now makes the long cruise from the main Hawaiian Islands to fish the reefs for snappers and grouper -- often a marginal operation given soaring fuel prices.
At today's White House ceremony, the president will invoke the 1906 Antiquities Act for the second time in his presidency. The only other time was to declare a burial ground in Lower Manhattan as one of the nation's ancient cultural sites. The site, where about 20,000 slaves and free black people were buried in the 18th century, is only about half an acre.
Bush's declaration today will be on a much larger scale. The strip of protected ocean, about 1,200 miles long and 100 miles wide, will dwarf all of the nation's marine sanctuaries as well as national parks on land.
Initially, Bush was going to propose that the area be protected as a national marine sanctuary. But he wanted to move faster, a senior official said.
"Because it's a presidential action, under the authority of a congressional act, it becomes law immediately without going through a prolonged rule-making process and the inevitable legal action that follows," a top aide said. "We can immediately begin with protection and management."