On August 25, 2016, President Obama proclaimed an expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by 375,278,034 acres, making it the largest marine reserve in the world at 493,759,275 acres (~1.3-million nautical miles). (The name is pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah and derives from an ancient Hawaiian creation story.)
Until relatively recently, no president had applied the Antiquities Act of 1906 to any large amount of salt water. A few national monuments include seawater associated with islands and adjacent lands, but no national monument had been proclaimed that included a lot of ocean.
The opportunity for U.S. seascape-scale conservation exists thanks to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994. Though the United States has yet to sign it, our country nonetheless views the treaty as settled international law, which recognizes a United States Exclusive Economic Zone (USEEZ) that extends up to 200 nautical (230.2 statute) miles (nm) off the 13,000-mile coastline of the United States.
Icebreaker John F. Kennedy
The first serious seawater national monument was proclaimed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy: 850-acre Buck Island Reef National Monument near the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1975, President Gerald Ford added 30 acres to the monument (which was more than a third of the total acreage proclaimed as national monuments by him). In 2001, President Bill Clinton added 18,135 acres, so the national monument now totals 19,015 acres.
Bold Bill Clinton
In December 2000, as President Clinton neared leaving office, he signed an executive order (EO) directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER). The reserve extended 1,200 nm from the seaward boundary of the sovereign State of Hawaii to the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The reserve was 100 nm wide, for a total of 101,705,728 acres in size. (An nm is 6,075 feet, while the statute mile used on land is 5,280 feet. A nautical square mile covers 847.547736 acres, but who’s counting?)
It was bold and creative conservation, based specifically on the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and amendments and furthering a slew of congressional conservation statutes. Among these were the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act; the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act; the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Endangered Species Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Clean Water Act; the National Historic Preservation Act; and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act.
The ecosystem reserve was larger than the combined area of all national monuments proclaimed since Theodore Roosevelt first received and used the authority in 1906. The Clinton EO directed the Secretary of Commerce to manage the NWHICRER as a national marine sanctuary. The EO is quite detailed as to purposes, priorities, and process because Clinton was pioneering new conservation concepts.
In January 2001, Clinton went on to establish the 12,708-acre Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, which includes federal submerged lands within 3 nm of the island of St. John and abuts Virgin Islands National Park. However, Clinton did not call it a marine national monument.
Bolder George W. Bush
President George W. Bush further pioneered salt-water conservation by applying the Antiquities Act to marine lands. When he entered office in 2001, about 75.5 million acres of national monuments had been created by presidential proclamation. When he left, he’d nearly quadrupled the total to 284.2 million acres, mostly by designating these marine national monuments:
• Papahānaumokuākea Marine, Hawaii, 118,481,240.66 acres
• Marianas Trench Marine, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands, 80,700,105.23 acres
• Pacific Remote Islands Marine, U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, 73,641,727.69 acres
• Rose Atoll Marine, American Samoa, 11,400,364.60 acres
Bush’s Papahānaumokuākea proclamation superseded Clinton’s executive order by including all of the NWHICRER and additional marine acreage around Midway Island. National monuments provide greater conservation protection than national marine sanctuaries.
Before Papahānaumokuākea, Bush’s national monument legacy consisted of the 0.35-acre African Burial Ground in New York. As he considered the proclamation, he had the proverbial angel (First Lady Laura Bush) on one shoulder whispering yes and devil (Vice President Dick Cheney) on the other whispering no. But he was soon leaving office and knew he would never again stand for election, which meant he would no longer be required to sleep with devils. He was going to continue to sleep with that angel.
Boldest (So Far) Barack Obama
Obama has now made two marine national monument proclamations, both additions to existing monuments first established by President Bush. With Obama’s first use of his pen, he claimed the title for the most marine and total national monument acreage preserved, in the Pacific Remote Islands Additions. The original Pacific Remote Islands National Monument proclaimed by Bush in the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands reached only 50 nm out to sea around Wake, Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Islands; Johnston and Palmyra Atolls; and Kingman Reef. Obama expanded the monument by 342,504,210.69 to the full extent of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (up to 200 nm) to create what was at the time (but not for long) the largest marine reserve in the world at 416,145,938.38 acres.
Five U.S. Presidents have used their authority granted by Congress under the Antiquities Act to protect marine environments:
Obama (2009-2017) 717,782,244.78 acres
G.W. Bush (2001-2009) 284,229,748.17 acres
Clinton (1993-2001) 12,708.00 acres
Kennedy (1961-1963) 850.00 acres
Ford (1974-1977) 30.00 acres
More That Could Be Done
The USEEZ is the largest EEZ in the world, containing 3.4 million square nautical miles (2.88 billion acres). In this zone, thanks mostly to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and to Bill Clinton for starting the trend to go boldly to sea), 1 billion acres—35 percent of the USEEZ—have been protected so far. It is ecologically imperative, economically rational, and politically reasonable for at least two-thirds of the USEEZ to be protected as national monuments for this and future generations.
One of many areas worthy of protection is Gorda Ridge, in the USEEZ in the eastern Pacific Ocean off southern Oregon and northern California, encompassing undersea volcanoes, thermal vents, and newly discovered life forms. Then there is the Astoria Canyon and Fan, offshore from the mouth of the Columbia River, that was shaped by the massive Missoula Floods seventeen thousand years ago.
We cannot forget Heceta Bank, Perpetua Bank, and Stonewall Bank, 15 to 30 nm off the central Oregon coast, where underwater seamounts 10 by 25 nm in area and 30 to 60 fathoms (180 to 360 feet) below the surface cause upwelling that provides food for lots of seabirds. Of this area, 800,027 acres have been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society
Additionally, there is the Redfish Rocks Oregon Marine Protected Area and the . . . oh hell, how about an Offshore Oregon Marine National Monument? Oh wait! A Cascadia Subduction Zone Marine National Monument!