President Bush has made environmental history by protecting three vast tracts of ocean wilderness totaling 195,000 square miles an area grater than the states of Washington and Oregon combined.
Together with the other ocean tracts Bush protected in 2006 also in an executive action under the Antiquities Act that requires no approval from other branches of government he is responsible for protecting more ocean territory from commercial fishing, mining and other so-called "extractive industries" than any other person, ever.
With the oceans under assault from global warming and acidification (both caused by carbon dioxide emissions, primarily), from fertilizer runoff and erosion, and from overfishing scientists have been warning of the collapse of half the fish now caught commercially and the death of many corals by mid-century, and worse, an eventual return to a primordial stew of slime. One of the first key actions scientists recommend to avoid this future scenario is to protect healthy tracts of ocean now.
Bush has done that. Here's how the Pew Commission on the Oceans describes the largest area to be protected:
The largest of the protected areas surrounds the Northern Mariana Islands and includes the Mariana Trench, the deepest canyon on earth. The Mariana Islands monument alone protects 95,000 square miles, encompassing areas believed to harbor some of the oldest known life on the DNA tree. By itself, this monument is the third largest marine reserve in the world. Among its diverse and remarkable underwater features are the second known boiling pool of liquid sulfur (the first pool was discovered on Io, one of Jupiters moons); huge, active mud volcanoes one more than 31 miles across; and highly acidic hydrothermal vents that provide a unique natural laboratory for the study of ocean acidification and its effects on coral reefs and shallow-water sea life.
A marine mammal survey in the area found 19 species, including several rare species of beaked whales. The land areas shelter the endangered Micronesian megapode, which is the only bird known to use volcanic heat to incubate its eggs, threatened fruit bats, more than a dozen species of migratory seabirds with breeding populations numbering over 200,000 and giant coconut crabs the largest land-living arthropod in the world.
Will this action be enough to create an image of President Bush as an environmental champion. Unlikely.
As a president, he's presided over a steady stream of decisions that environmentalists criticized for gutting regulatory oversight of everything from clean air and clean water protection to forest conservation to toxic substance regulation and worker and consumer protection. Chief among the administration's failures, most environmental advocates agree, is a failure to reduce global warming pollution.
And, though his marine conservation legacy is impressive, Bush chose in the end to preserve fewer square miles than originally proposed reportedly in part due to heavy lobbying against the initiative from the Vice President's Office. Laura Bush deserves credit for backing her husband against Dick Cheney's advice on this issue, if a recent Washington Post account is correct.
Even if it doesn't make the Bush presidency an eco-friendly administration overall, Bush will be remembered like Theodore Roosevelt is in relation to national parks on land for protecting ocean preserves.
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