msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/6/2009 2:21:49 PM ET 2009-01-06T19:21:49

Announcing the largest marine conservation effort in history, President George W. Bush on Tuesday designated three remote Pacific island areas as national monuments to protect them from energy extraction and commercial fishing.

"For sea birds and marine life, they will be sanctuaries to grow and thrive. For scientists, they will be places to extend the frontiers of discovery. And for the American people, they will be places that honor our duty to be good stewards of the Almighty's creation," Bush said at a White House ceremony.

The three areas — totaling some 195,280 square miles — include the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on earth at 36,000 feet below the sea.

Each location harbors unique species and some of the rarest geological formations on Earth — from the world's largest land crab to a bird that incubates its eggs in the heat of underwater volcanoes.

All will be protected as national monuments — the same status afforded to statues and cultural sites — under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law allows the government to immediately phase out commercial fishing and other extractive uses.

However, recreational fishing, tourism and scientific research could still occur inside the three areas.

"These locations are truly among the last pristine areas in the marine environment on Earth," said James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Ceremony Tuesday at White House
The president plans to make the designation official on Tuesday at a ceremony at the White House.

The three marine areas — totaling 195,280 square miles — are:

  • In the northern Pacific, waters at the northern end of the Northern Mariana Islands, including the Mariana Trench.
  • In American Samoa, the Rose Atoll — the world’s smallest coral atoll and one of the most remote.
  • In the central Pacific, coral reefs, pinnacles, sea mounts, islands and surrounding waters of Johnston Atoll, Howland, Baker and Jarvis Islands, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll and Wake Island. These areas harbor some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world.

The Marianas monument is especially significant given the scientific value of the trench and underwater volcanoes that form part of the Pacific Rim's "Ring of Fire."

"Here, the oldest species on Earth thrive amidst monstrous active mud volcanoes, and strange new species push life beyond all extremes," noted the Pew Environment Group in a report on the proposed monument's scientific value.

The area offers "the greatest diversity of seamount (underwater volcano) and hydrothermal vent life yet discovered," the conservation group stated. "The world's first discovery of hydrothermal vent fish was made in a boiling undersea lake of liquid sulfur" in this area.

Size scaled back
The protected areas will extend 50 nautical miles off the coral reefs and atolls at the three monuments, which will be officially called the Marianas Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Advocacy groups were pushing for 200 nautical miles, the full extent of the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

Commercial fishing will also still be allowed in the waters over the Mariana Trench. The monument will only protect the rim of the canyon and its depths. The canyon is deeper than Mt. Everest is tall and five times the size of the Grand Canyon.

"Commercial fishing was not relevant to the resource we wanted to protect," Connaughton said, referring to the deep trench itself. He also said the science did not support protecting the full 200 nautical miles.

A group seeking a wider Marianas designation praised Bush but said it would continue working for more protection.

"We still applaud President Bush for taking the first step," Agnes McPhetres, vice chair of The Friends of the Monument, said in a statement. "The Marianas will still get a visitors center, an enforcement boat, co-management, an advisory council to the monument, federal jobs, and loads of media attention."

Obama asked to 'finish the job'
But McPhetres vowed to lobby President-elect Barack Obama, "starting from the day he is sworn in ... to come in and finish the job. We set out to protect an entire ecosystem and that is what we intend to do."

The Obama administration will also hammer out how the areas will be managed, and make sure the prohibitions are enforced.

The Friends of the Monument said it had petitioned Bush to designate a large area where fishing and mining would be banned. It collected more than 6,000 signatures from islanders, as well as hundreds of letters from students, island leaders and businesses.

In August, the White House said Bush had directed federal agencies to assess several sites in the Pacific for increased conservation and protection. 

The areas are in U.S. territorial waters and already managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

'Generations will benefit'
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the designation will not conflict with U.S. military activities or freedom of navigation.

"The public and future generations will benefit from the science and knowledge gained" from the areas, she said.

The move is a boost to the environmental record of a president who has been criticized for not doing enough against air pollution and global warming. He also lifted a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

"We and others in the environmental community have been at odds with this administration on lots of things, but if one looks at this one event it is a significant conservation event," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, which lobbied for the monuments' designation.

"In a more symbolic level, it sends a message that we have finally arrived at a point where we are beginning to think about the sea in the same way we have thought about the land — that there are special places under threat that need to be protected," Reichert said.

Two years ago, the president made a huge swath of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, barring fishing, oil and gas extraction, and tourism from its waters and coral reefs.

At the time, that area was the largest conservation area in the world. The three areas to be designated Tuesday are larger.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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