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Jan 122009

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

When President George W. Bush announced plans recently to protect more than 195,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean that are part of the United States’ official waters – a combined area the size of California – some eco-activists were surprised, even shocked.

The outgoing American president hasn’t exactly earned a reputation for environmental stewardship over the past eight years. And most in the eco-community agree that his on-land legacy has been a total failure. “Truly dismal,” says Dennis Heinemann, Vice President for Climate Change Programs at the Ocean Conservancy.

Except, he adds…when it comes to marine conservation.

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Heinemann and others (the primary non-governmental players in the recent designations are the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pew Environmental Fund) have been lobbying the White House and Capitol Hill to protect America’s coastal waters for years, even decades.

But Heinemann says marine conservationists were not surprised by this last week’s announcement – though he is careful not to whitewash two terms of Bush’s eco-unfriendliness.

“George Bush’s conservation record on land is dismal. Many environmental groups view his as the worst of any one Administration, in terms of inaction. His legacy in the ocean has been quite different. …Basically, it was George Bush who proclaimed the monument in Northwestern Hawaii back in 2006.”

The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument at the time was the largest “no take” marine preserve in the world and the largest conservation area under the U.S. flag. At nearly 140,000 square miles (105,564 square nautical miles) it encompassed an area larger than all the United State’s national parks combined.

Then, in 2007, the President signed the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act “to remove, reduce, and prevent marine debris and its adverse impacts on the marine environment,” the White House said, and “in November of 2007, Mrs. Bush announced a new Marine Debris Initiative to address the estimated 6.4 million tons of marine debris that litter the ocean.” In conjunction with those efforts, NOAA instituted a major campaign to promote the cleaning of ocean debris and agreed to join 100 other countries in an annual international debris cleanup.

The new monuments formally announced Jan. 6 are broken into three major preserves: the Marianas National Marine Monument, the Pacific Remote Island National Monument and Rose Atoll National Monument. They encompass nine sites, including the Rose Atoll, Wake Island, Johnston Island, Palmyra Island, Kingman Reef, Baker Island, Howland Island and Jarvis Island, all in the Central Pacific U.S. territories.

Under the new designation, their waters and reefs will be protected from commercial fishing, mining and other types of mass extraction, while recreational fishing and activities will be allowed by permit.

According to outspoken experts like Roger McManus, vice president for Global Marine Programs at Conservation International, the move will establish a surprising and lasting legacy for the outgoing president.

McManus, among others, praised Bush and credited him with protecting more marine environment than any person in history and setting a bold (if largely unexpected) example for other countries. Some editorialists and activists have even deemed Bush the new Teddy Roosevelt, because just as Roosevelt launched the national parks system, Bush has initiated a national “oceans protection” system.