National Marine Monument Upgraded to World’s Largest National Park
To end the week of 100th anniversary celebrations for the National Park Service, President Barack Obama turned to the ocean to create the largest protected area anywhere on Earth.
The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, established in 2006 by President George W. Bush, already covered 140,000 square miles of ocean around the uninhabited northwestern islands of Hawaii to protect marine life and native Hawaiian culture. However, under the U.S. Antiquities Act, President Obama extended most of the monument’s boundary to quadruple its size to 582,578 square miles, an area larger than all the national parks combined.
Papahānaumokuākea is a sanctuary for endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and the last Hawaiian monk seals. It contains some of the world’s northernmost and healthiest coral reefs, most likely to survive in an ocean warmed by climate change. The seamounts and sunken islands of its deeper waters are inhabited by more than 7,000 species, including the oldest animals on Earth—black corals that have lived for more than 4,000 years.
In all, a quarter of the creatures living in the monument are found nowhere else, of which many have not yet been identified. Daniel Wagner, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says all 50 biological samples that remotely operated vehicles recovered were either new species or “not know to live in the area”.
Hawaii governor David Ige remarked on the “tremendous” debate within Hawaii over the monument and its fishing exclusion. But in the end, he said, the expansion “strikes the right balance at this time for the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, and it can be a model for sustainability in the other oceans of planet Earth.”
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle hopes that the United States can lead the way to a global network of marine-protected areas large enough to save and restore the oceans.
There has been no marine monument created in the Atlantic Ocean, despite popular proposals to protect some of the last great troves of marine biodiversity in the East, such as Caches Ledge in the Gulf of Maine or the canyons and seamounts off New England’s continental shelf. Robin Kundis Craig, University of Utah law professor, blames the history and power of the 400-year-old New England fishing industry that makes it a political challenge.
Many scientists, environmentalists, and Native Hawaiians have argued for more stringent protections for the biologically rich region, given important deep-water discoveries in the area and the dual threats of climate change and sea-bed mining.
“The oceans are the untold story when it comes to climate change, and we have to feel a sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the ocean that sustains us,” said Sen. Brian Schatz..
In his official proclamation, Obama declared, “It is in the public interest to preserve the marine environment.”
All commercial extraction activities, including fishing and future deep-sea mining, will be prohibited in the expanded monument area. However, recreational fishing, removal of resources for traditional Hawaiian cultural purposes and scientific research will be allowed with a federal permit.
Some marine scientists and conservationists argue that fishing, mining, and other types of exploitation should be prohibited in at least 30% of the oceans to protect sea life and the benefits it provides humanity. With this new expansion, the U.S. has about 1,2000 marine protected areas covering 26% of marine waters, mentions Lauren Wenzel, director of NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas. But, the majority allow fishing or some form of resource extraction.
The Papahānaumokuākea expansion increases the portion of “no-take” areas from 3 percent to 13 percent of U.S. marine waters. Almost all of that protected ocean—more than 98 percent—is in Papahānaumokuākea.
Longline fishermen lobbied against new protections, arguing that their industry rejects damaging practices (i.e. trawling) and needs flexibility to sustain an annual catch valued at more than $100 million.
“We move all over the ocean, in the way the fish move,” said Jim Cook, co-owner of POP Fishing and Marine, a Honolulu store, adding that the new restrictions mean 60 percent of federal waters off Hawaii are now closed to fishing.
Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, said the industry’s fleet of 145 boats could not match the lobbying power of well-financed environmental groups such as Pew.
Some Native Hawaiian activists lobbied for greater protection so they could continue to observe traditional voyaging practices in which they navigate without instruments.
William Aila, a former state official and Hawaiian activist, celebrates the president’s move to preserve “a cultural seascape, with the history of the Polynesians who migrated up to Hawaii.”
World’s Northernmost Islands Now Part of National Park
The same day that President Barack Obama designated the expansion of a marine reserve in the Hawaiian Islands, the Russian government has expanded the Russian Arctic (Russkaya Arktika) National Park to include Franz Josef Land, the world’s northernmost chain of islands.
Made up of more than 190 islands, Franz Josef Land is a mostly uninhabited area enclosed in sea ice for majority of the year, home to a stunning biodiversity. The newly expanded park will protect habitat for species like the Atlantic walrus, bowhead whale, polar bear, narwhal, and white gull.
Signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev Friday, Russia’s park expansion increased the size of the protected area by 28,500 square miles (7.4 million hectares). Now at 34,000 square miles (8.8 million hectares), the Russian Arctic National Park is now the largest in Russia. In a government statement, the park “will contribute to the integrated conservation of the pristine islands and marine ecosystems of the northeastern part of the Barents Sea,” now including the “glacial and periglacial landscapes of the polar deserts and ecosystems of offshore shallow water and sea ice, [home to endemic] Arctic fauna”.
Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, says “This historical national park designation has shown Russia’s commitment to the conservation of the Arctic environment, and sent a powerful signal to the other Arctic nations”.
“Franz Josef Land is one of those few places where one can see what the world would be like without humans,” Sala adds. “It’s one of the wildest and most beautiful places I have seen, and dived, in my life; and one of the most precious natural jewels in the Arctic.”
Expedition co-leader, Paul Rose, chimes in on the expansion, adding that the timing of the Russian and American announcements this week proves that “we’re in a sweet spot for ocean conservation at the moment. People are seeing the success of marine protected areas around the world and they want to do it themselves. We’re also in a time of healthy competition for ocean leadership.”
Rose considers the new park designation to be particularly important because the Arctic is changing at unprecedented rates, thanks to global warming. Sea ice is predicted to continue to melt with profound changes in arctic wildlife populations. The area will also be open to vessel traffic, from cruise ships to fishermen to those looking for oil, gas, or seabed minerals.
“Those things could prove disastrous to marine resources,” mentions Rose. “But in protecting the unique environment of Franz Josef Land, those things can’t happen there now.”
New National Monument Designated in Maine
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, President Obama designated the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the second to be designated in the state (after Acadia National Park’s precursor). The site sits east of Baxter State Park in north-central Maine, more than 200 miles north of Portland. It is the 413th preserved area in the Park Service.
The new national monument will protect approximately 87,500 acres, including the East Branch of the Penobscot River and a portion of the Maine Woods. The statement adds that “In addition to protecting spectacular geology, significant biodiversity, and recreational opportunities, the new monument will help support climate resiliency in the region. The protected area—together with the neighboring Baxter State Park to the west—will ensure that this large landscape remains intact, bolstering the forest’s resilience against the impacts of climate change.”
The land was donated to the federal government by Elliotsville Plantation Inc, a non profit foundation started by Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees. By donating land worth $60 million, along with the facilities her family foundation has already built, an endowment of $20 million for operations and maintenance, and a pledge to raise another $20 million, Quimby is providing the government with a $100 million gift.
For more than a decade, Quimby and conservationist allies have been pushing for a national part in the North Woods. But, they have faced stiff opposition from Maine residents and politicians as well as from the timber industry. Maine’s congressional delegation refused to introduce the measure necessary to create a national park, which requires an act of Congress.
So Quimby turned to Obama to designate the land as a monument. Using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, he declared the land a national monument, an act he has done nearly two dozen times while in office.
Signed into law by former president Theodore Roosevelt, the Act allows the commander-in-chief to protect cultural and scientific resources on federal land. Since then, all presidents except for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush have used the act to set aside sites such as the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Tetons.
Those who opposed Quimby and her push for a national park point to the state’s crippling unemployment and a shrinking population whose distrust of the federal government runs deep.
St. Clair, Quimby’s son and campaign leader, was determined to win the locals. He restored public access to thousands of acres est of the Penobscot River to keep as a recreation area for popular activities such as hunting, snowmobiling, and fishing. He also built an 18-mile loop road around the proposed park, along with camping areas and hiking trails, and invited the public to come see it for themselves. It will be the only National Park Service national monument that allows hunting and the more half the site will be open to snowmobiling during the winter season. However, logging, except for tree removal the Park Service conducts for conservation or safety purposes, will not be permitted.
Some local residents see commercial logging as the best way to revive the region’s sagging economy, but proponents of the monument argue that the tourism boost would ultimately yield greater economic benefits. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) says the designation is likely to create hundreds of jobs in the Katahdin region, “giving an economic boost to the entire state while permanently protecting a landscape that inspired American conservationists from poet Henry David Thoreau to President Theodore Roosevelt.”
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis and NPCA President Theresa Pierno both agree that the new national monument is unique in the ecosystem and wildlife that it protects that no other national parks have yet to include.
To date, President Obama has permanently protected more than 265 million acres of America’s public lands and waters, more than any other president in history.