From Bullets to Birds: Midway's Transformation to a World Heritage Site

© Jaymi Heimbuch

For such a tiny place, Midway has an incredibly robust history and presence in the world. The three small islands of the atoll add up to between 1,500-1,600 acres total and yet their importance to a diverse range of species and to American history cannot be understated. It is no wonder then, that the Midway Atoll is now part of a larger marine sanctuary that is helping to bring back endangered species populations and act as an example for a sustainable planet, which in turn is a double World Heritage Site, one of only 28 in the world to be recognized for both its natural and cultural importance.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Well before humans arrived, the low-laying sand and coral islands of Midway were home to marine animals from sea turtles to birds. The Oceanic Society notes that 19 seabird species and many terrestrial and shore birds, visit or nest on Midway during the year, and supports the world's largest colonies of Laysan and Black-Footed Albatrosses. It is also a resting place for Hawaiian Monk seals and Green sea turtles (both of which are now endangered), as well as an incredible diversity of nudibranch, or sea slugs, and diverse fish species. In fact, over 7,000 marine species are supported by the atoll, with more than half of those endemic to the Hawaiian Island archipelago.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

With the arrival of humans, especially those running the Commercial Pacific Cable Company at the turn of the 20th century, the balance of the islands shifted. New animal and plant species were introduced, including ironwood trees in which albatross get caught and are killed, and seeds from invasive plants such as verbesina were introduced as soil was brought on to the island. As the diversity grew, the ecosystem's health teetered.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway became a vital base for naval operations during World War II, and was the site of what many regard as the most important naval battle in the war. There are relics of the war still on Midway, such as the pillbox pictured above where young soldiers would sit and watch the horizon for any sign of invading ships, and the pillbox pictured below which were set up as a last line of defense should the Japanese invade the island.

Wandering around the island, there is structure after structure left from war times that send the imagination spiraling back to what it must have been like during the Battle of Midway, and the years following the war when the military maintained a presence on the atoll. For Americans, especially veterans, the presence of these memories is as important to conserve as the wildlife that calls the atoll home.

Midway also represents and important part of native Hawaiian history, as one of the likely locations where the first travelers from Polynesia vistited on their way to Kauai'i and the other Hawaiian Islands. It is the these rich histories combined that drew attention to Midway for establishing it as a World Heritage Site. Though that status didn't come until relatively recently.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1988 and later in 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was handed over authority from the Navy. Four years later, President Bill Clinton took protections for the refuge a step further by enacting an Executive Order to establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, which includes the Midway Atoll.

According to Oceanic Society, "In 2003, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) initiated a public process to determine if the NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve should be designated as a National Marine Sanctuary, and if so, what protections should be provided. This process came to an end on June 15, 2006, when President George W. Bush designated the existing Reserve and additional ocean area as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument."

This makes the area the largest conservation area established by the US, with nearly 138,000 square miles protected. Thanks to the protections offered with this status, there is no fishing or dumping allowed within the monument's boarders. This provides a wonderful space for the species using the atoll to thrive. Of course, it cannot prevent the pollution brought in by air and water, or the threats faced by the birds, turtles, seals and other marine life when they leave the monument. But it is important nonetheless to have areas closed off to activity where species can take a breath and find some level of safety.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Later, in March of 2007, the monument was renamed as the Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah) Marine National Monument, an Hawaiian name that reflects the importance of the area to the Hawaiian culture. Oceanic Society explains, "Taken apart, “Papa” (earth mother), “hānau” (birth), “moku” (small island or large land division), and “ākea” (wide) bespeak a fertile woman giving birth to a wide stretch of islands beneath a benevolent sky. Taken as one long name, Papahānaumokuākea can be seen as a symbol of hope and regeneration for the Kūpuna Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands. And through the mana (spiritual power) of Papahānaumokuākea’s name, one that encourages abundance and the procreative forces of earth, sea, and sky, the people will grow as well."

Finally, in July 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 34th World Heritage Convention in Brasilia, Brazil inscribed Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as one of only 28 mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Sites in the World.

The Papahānaumokuākea Monument's website notes, "Inscription of this remote oceanic expanse is a win for the United States on its first nomination of a site in 15 years. The vote also establishes the first mixed World Heritage Site in the nation, which covers an area of nearly 140,000 square miles. Papahānaumokuākea’s globally significant natural attributes incorporate its living, indigenous, cultural connections to the sea––where modern Hawaiian wayfinders (non-instrument navigators) still voyage for navigational training on traditional double-hulled sailing canoes; an aspect of inscription unique to Papahānaumokuākea. Additionally, World Heritage status places this traditional skill, which was­­­ used to navigate across the world’s largest ocean––one of the greatest feats of human kind––onto the world stage."

© Jaymi Heimbuch

The USFWS works hard to restore the habitat of Midway as closely as possible to its original state while still maintaining and restoring the structures from the military history. The Oceanic Society helps in this effort. The non-profit organization works in conjunction with USFWS on projects such as restoring the gun platform pictured above, and setting up activities for visitors to take part in such as clearing out invasive species and beach clean-ups.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

While there are many structures in need of restoration on the atoll, the USFWS, Oceanic Society and many volunteers are dedicated to restoring and preserving the health of the atoll and living up to the honor bestowed on the area with the World Heritage Site title. Everything from efforts to replant native grasses and remove ironwood trees, to removing lead paint chips from the soil around decaying buildings are monumental efforts that take time, funds, and dedication.

You can visit Midway with the Oceanic Society and appreciate the incredible place first-hand. Check out dates, which run March through April every year, and get ready to spend some time with the amazing wildlife and military history of this World Heritage Site.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Tags: Conservation | Midway