A Montana-sized chunk of ocean would be off limits to fishing boats and tourists in a bid to protect fragile reefs.
With the stroke of a pen, President Bush has established the largest ocean wildlife reserve in the world, centered along a string of islands, reefs, and atolls that stretch 1,400 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
Other reef systems, such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, are larger. But only a third of that UN-designated World Heritage reef is protected, analysts say, leaving far more of it open to exploitation.
The move comes from an administration not known as the darling of the environmental and conservation crowd. But it's drawing kudos from a variety of marine-conservation groups. The region's relative isolation has allowed it to retain some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. The president's proclamation Thursday, which designated the area as a national monument, immediately created a reserve that covers some 140,000 square miles, more territory than all of America's national parks combined.
"This is just amazing," says Ellen Athas, ecosystems-protection director for the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, who served on the president's Council on Environmental Quality under Bill Clinton. "This is an important first step in protecting some of the world's healthiest reefs for future generations."
The key provisions include:
•Restricting tourism activities, such as fishing and diving, to Midway Island, at the far northwest end of the chain.
•Phasing out commercial fishing over the next five years and banning it thereafter.
•Banning all resource extraction and waste-dumping.
•Banning "boats for hire," only allowing access to the area for research benefiting the reserve and for educational purposes.