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Obama’s Hawaiian marine preserve: Massive potential, monumental challenges

The endangered Hawaiian monk seal is one of the 7,000 species that gained a measure of protection. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CC BY

Obama’s Hawaiian marine preserve: Massive potential, monumental challenges

President Obama’s environmental record just went big. On August 26, he quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the center of the Pacific Ocean, northwest of Hawaii. Whatever other conservation actions he takes in his final months in office, Papahānaumokuākea will be hard to top.

The new monument is also outsized in the interrelated issues that it will address – and generate. In Papahānaumokuākea, biology, politics and policy converge and collide in revelatory ways.

For those of us who study the intersection of environmental history, policy and politics on sea and land as I do, it’s clear the creation of this gigantic marine monument is a huge step forward for conservation and for helping ecosystems adapt to a changing climate.

But it also poses such significant management, budgetary and political challenges that I fear Papahānaumokuākea will complicate, if not submarine, President Obama’s ambitious environmental agenda.

Human and natural challenges

To understand the challenges Papahānaumokuākea will pose, start with the site’s remoteness – it is a far remove even from the main Hawaiian Islands, never mind the West Coast. Add, then, its vastness: President Obama added more than 440,000 square miles to boost the already designated monument to a staggering 582,578 square miles. Note: These are square miles, not acres. So gigantic is this national monument that it is larger than all the U.S. national parks and national forests combined; it’s not much smaller than Alaska.

The conservation mission of Papahānaumokuākea, which is now the largest blue reserve on this blue planet, is also a tall order. Significantly, it prohibits fishing and other resource exploitation so as to protect such endangered species as the short-tailed albatross and the remaining population of Hawaiian monk seals, as well as the long-living black coral (some of which are estimated to be 4,000 years old). So little of its flora and fauna have been studied that it is highly likely that the 7,000 species known to inhabit the region are but a fraction of those actually there.

Finally, the national monument comes with a social justice commitment: The state’s lead indigenous rights agency, the Department of Hawaiian Affairs, will help supervise archaeological and sacred sites, an innovative co-management initiative. By any calculation, Papahānaumokuākea is astonishing.

But it precisely the national monument’s massive proportions that make its effective management so daunting.

The creation of the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, which preserves important ocean resources, was enabled by Obama’s predecessor Bush and gained backing from Hawaii’s legislators. Papahanaumokuakea National Monument

Consider that the first generation of forest rangers on the U.S. national forests had to control only one million acres in the remote western mountains, and yet understandably they were baffled how they and their horses could steward their new domain. Imagine their modern counterparts trying to survey a waterscape 100 times that extent, even with airplanes and satellites; Papahānaumokuākea dwarfs our faith in management by technology.

Now add budgetary constraints to the vastness of Papahānaumokuākea: The National Park Service’s funding has taken a hit recently at the same time that the number of properties it supervises has mushroomed, thanks to President Obama’s rapid-fire creation of 26 new national monuments (with even more anticipated).

I understand why the chief executive is moving with dispatch (a mash-up of legacy building and opportunity knocks). But I worry that the speed with which these sites have been designated, and their disparate fiscal demands, has outstripped the executive branch’s capacity to underwrite them. My worry is magnified given the strong opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to the president’s ready use of the Antiquities Act.

Papahānaumokuākea will be a major test of the federal government’s stewardship, then, not least because in the run-up to its expansion the National Park Service held a series of raucous public meetings in which the industrial and longline fishing industry, along with native organizations, opposed the designation.

Preservation of marine life, they argued, is in direct competition with their long history of harvesting food from these very waters. How the National Park Service manages these fraught human dynamics will be every bit as critical as its stewardship of the marinescape’s threatened biodiversity.

Building on Bush’s legacy

At the same time, I am buoyed by the national monument’s oddly bipartisan political history: It owes existence to two very different presidents, one whose administration downplayed emerging climate change science, the other who has been at the forefront of world leaders responding to the threats climate change poses.

In 2006, after a White House screening of Jacques-Michel Cousteau’s documentary “Voyage to Kure,” which details human damage to the islands’ ecosystems, President George W. Bush was moved to action. Using the 1906 Antiquities Act, he set aside Papahānaumokuākea – the first of four oceanic parks he would create in the Pacific. Time magazine dubbed this collection of sites Bush’s last acts of “greenness,” while a legion of environmental critics suggested they were his first and last; no president had used the Antiquities Act less than Bush did.

The creation of the monument is controversial with the fishing industry and indigenous groups who complain about new restrictions on fishing in the area. Lindsey Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CC BY

Moreover, given how far away these sites were from the continental U.S., their very isolation dampened any controversy. Still, as Time magazine noted, these “marine monuments will mean that President Bush – perhaps the least environmental president in U.S. history – will have protected more of the ocean than anyone else in the world.”

President Obama has blown that claim out of the water. But he did so in a more calculated, less cathartic manner. As part of his 2009 commitment to address climate change, his administration has sought projects that would enhance landscape resilience to the effects of climate change.

In 2014, Obama added roughly 300,000 square miles to the Bush-inaugurated Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (now totaling 490,343 square miles), a stretch of remote Pacific islands south and west of Hawaii. When he did so, he justified its expansion as a way to strengthen Pacific ecosystems. The same rationale was deployed in support of Papahānaumokuākea National Monument.

These two mega monuments, when combined with the 126 other (and smaller) U.S. marine sanctuaries, now account for about 26 percent of the nation’s waters, meaning that collectively they are giving oceanic species a fighting chance to survive as the climate-charged seas warm and rise. They also make the president’s latest action in the Pacific more than a grand gesture. It just might be a planetary life preserver.