What to Make of Bush's Oceanic Gestures

A volunteer on an Earthwatch project measures a coral reef that has been affected by climate change and runoff.
Image credit:James Crabbe

By: George Grattan (Note: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Earthwatch.)

On his way out the door-with a reputation and a record as one of the worst modern American presidents on scientific and environmental issues - President George W. Bush nevertheless did something right: with the stroke of a pen, he created the largest marine conservation area in the world across nine sites in three regions in the central Pacific.

This move isn't only a good one, it's a huge one.In fact, it's so huge that the scope of his action might, paradoxically, be part of the reason why some environmentalists are still going to give Bush a failing grade.

But more on that paradox in a bit.

First, let's give credit where it's due. Setting aside nearly 200,000 square miles as both marine sanctuaries and scientific research areas via Teddy Roosevelt's 1906 Antiquities Act, Bush has not only rediscovered the moribund tradition of Republican environmentalism, but he also-and more importantly-has given a great gift to the planet.

Working with the advice of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Pew Environmental Fund, Bush selected sites that collectively harbor the world's smallest atoll (Rose Atoll-which is home to more than 500 fish species and 97% of American Samoa's seabirds), several threatened turtle nesting beaches, the deepest ocean canyon in the world (the Mariana Trench, with its otherworldly, undersea volcanoes, acidic thermal vents, liquid sulfur, and incredibly rare life forms), hundreds of species of corals, Hawaiian monk seals, and countless seabirds, rays, sharks, dolphins and whales.

At a time when the world's oceans face the very real prospect of an apocalyptic collapse, this development is an unalloyed good for worldwide efforts to bring us back from the brink. The scientific research which will be able to take place in these protected ecosystems may produce the data and solutions we need to keep burgeoning world populations in a more sustainable balance with the oceans' roles in climate, food supply, and biodiversity. And, as Roosevelt knew and Bush seems to have remembered, there's an intrinsic value to protecting vast areas of wilderness even if most people never encounter them.

So, kudos, President Bush, truly.

And yet....there's the paradox that a huge effort centering on places so remote (and even "exotic") to most Americans-heck, to most people on the planet-also reinforces the dangerous sense that protecting ocean health is something that happens A) far away, B) in pristine places, and C) with a single, dramatic governmental action. As great at it is that Bush has created these marine monuments through executive power, the fact remains that the day-to-day protections for American coastal waters are lacking, and that the American role in multinational legal efforts to protect shared waters has been neither dramatic nor active.

As good as creating these protected areas is, it's also a dodge, and an "easy" way to burnish that which is tarnished. It's great that Presidents can do these sorts of things, and it's a great and welcome surprise that this one has.

But just as one doesn't win a traditional war by pulling down a statute, landing on an aircraft carrier, and proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," one doesn't win the war for healthy oceans via a single gesture-however grand.

It's great to save the Mariana Trench. But you've also got to be willing to work in the trenches. Here's hoping for a new administration that's willing to work on both the monumental and the municipal scale.

More from our archives on marine sanctuaries.
Bush Administration’s Abysmal Environmental Record in Cool ...
Record Setting 195000 Square Miles of Pacific Ocean Protected by ...
The Environmental Tipping Point.
PETA to Buy Sea World
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: "Out of Sight, Out of Mind ...

Tags: Conservation