President Bush on Monday signaled his intention to protect some of the Pacific Ocean's most remote and unspoiled islands, atolls and coral reefs from fishing and deep-sea mining.
In a memo to three Cabinet secretaries, the president asked for a plan that would protect parts of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on the planet, as well as waters around Rose Atoll in American Samoa and various islands and reefs in the central Pacific that are under U.S. jurisdiction.
The proposal, expected to be finalized before Bush leaves office, could establish marine sanctuaries or national monuments extending as far as 200 miles from each island or emergent reef that breaks the surface of the water.
Bush wrote in the memo that James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has advised him that these waters contain "objects of historic and scientific interest . . . that may be appropriate for recognition, protection or improved conservation and management" under various existing laws.
The memo lays out several legal alternatives for extending federal protections, including the Antiquities Act, which the Bush administration employed several years ago to establish the world's largest protected marine area -- a swath that encircles the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The White House memo has unleashed a scramble among officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the Interior and Defense departments, to gather information and make recommendations to meet the president's timeline to finalize plans in the next few months.
Interagency memos began flying days before the official announcement, dispatching instructions to NOAA and Interior Department staff members to quickly write up analyses of no more than 15 pages on the various areas that might be included.
"When evaluating the information to be included please remember we are looking to identify significant 'historic or scientific qualities' that make these areas special, unique and worthy of additional protection or recognition," one memo said. "To put it in more simplistic terms, we are looking [to] identify the 'wow factor' for each of these sites."
One place with an easily identifiable "wow factor" is the Mariana Trench, an ocean canyon so deep it could hold Mt. Everest. Other areas slated for protection include Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef, Johnston Atoll, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Baker Island and Wake Island.
The memo sets a preliminary deadline of Sept. 5 for the evaluations, indicating that the administration wants to move fast.
Two other candidates for increased protection -- a stretch of deep-water corals off the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida and areas especially rich in marine life in the Gulf of Mexico -- were knocked out of consideration because of opposition from the fishing and oil and gas industries.
The proposed monuments in the Pacific are expected to also face resistance from commercial and recreational fishing interests. Gov. Benigno R. Fitial of Saipan, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, has already written a letter to Bush opposing new protections around the northernmost islands and the adjacent trench.
"We rely on fishing as a source of food and jobs," Fitial wrote Bush in April. "Those who live in the CNMI have no interest in ceding their cultural heritage to the federal government under the auspices of environmental protectionism."
Yet the Saipan Chamber of Commerce has rallied around the idea, saying that designating the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument would bring needed tourism to the financially struggling commonwealth.
U.S. conservationists praised Bush's proposal, but some also expressed concern that it would not go far enough.
"This is an opportunity for President Bush to do something really good that will be looked at as a high point of his administration -- if he does it right," said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, which has been lobbying for the protections. "By 'right,' I mean he gives big, broad protections and full protections around these islands and atolls, not postage-stamp protections."
Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, cautioned that merely designating the areas as sanctuaries would not necessarily protect them from destructive fishing or mining. If Bush actually bans those things, he said, "it would be one of the most significant environmental achievements of any U.S. president."