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Can Obama’s Pacific Ocean sanctuary plan balance environmental and economic interests?

June 17, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
President Obama launched a plan to create the world's largest marine preserve by adding to the existing national monument in the Central Pacific. Drilling, fishing and other activities would be off limits. Joshua Reichert of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the impetus and potential opposition for the proposed expansion.

GWEN IFILL: The president used the power of executive authority again today, this time to protect a wider expanse of the central Pacific Ocean.

Jeffrey Brown has the story and why scientists believe the area needs special safeguards.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we drain our oceans of their resources, we won’t just be squandering one of humanity’s greatest treasures. We will be cutting off one of the world’s major sources of food and economic growth.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama announced his plan to create the world’s largest marine preserve in a video message delivered today at a State Department conference on oceans conservation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And like Presidents Clinton and Bush before me, I’m going to use my authority as president to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes, just like we do for mountains and rivers and forests.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today’s directive would add to U.S. marine monuments in the Central Pacific designated by President George W. Bush during his administration. President Obama’s proposal could expand protection areas around seven islands and atolls in the U.S. territorial waters from 50 miles to 200.

And while final boundaries have not yet been determined, the executive step would expand the sparsely inhabited Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from almost 87,000 square miles to more than 780,000. That would put drilling, fishing and other activities in the new preserves off-limits.

Some Republican lawmakers, like House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, claimed the move was an overreach of presidential powers. In a statement, he said: “This is yet another example of how an imperial president is intent on taking unilateral action, behind closed doors, to impose new regulations and layers of restrictive red tape. Oceans, like our federal lands, are intended to be multiple-use and open for a wide range of economic activities that includes fishing, recreation, conservation, and energy production.”

The president also today issued a memorandum to federal agencies to develop a program that would ensure all seafood sold in the U.S. is both sustainable and traceable. In the meantime, any expansion of the Pacific marine reserves will be implemented later this year, after a public comment period.

The U.S. controls more than 13 percent of all ocean areas overseen by countries, and today’s action was being watched by international observers as well as on Capitol Hill.

We’re now joined by Joshua Reichert. He is the executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where he directs environmental initiatives. And Juliet Eilperin, who reported this story for The Washington Post.

And welcome to both of you.

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: Thanks so much.

JOSHUA REICHERT, Pew Charitable Trusts: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joshua Reichert, let me start with you. Tell us more about this area of the ocean, and why is it important to protect?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Well, it’s one of the most isolated, remote areas of the ocean that’s under the jurisdiction of the United States.

And because it’s isolated and hard to get to, these islands and atolls have been uninhabited essentially forever. So the amount of ocean life that they contain is absolutely remarkable. It’s a staggering assemblage of fish, sea birds, marine mammals, and critical habitat that’s needed by a wide variety of species that occupy these areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: I suppose one would wonder, if it’s so little remote and so little used, why does it need protection, as opposed to other places?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Well, the world is shrinking.

And areas that 50 years ago were considered to be absolutely inaccessible today are not that way. And I think, over the short to medium term, these areas will be opened up and they will not be nearly as remote as they are today. Fishing vessels now ply these waters on a regular basis, and, 50 years ago, they didn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: Juliet, what can you tell us about the decision and the process to take this action, and in this way, through an executive action?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, first, when you look at the issue starting with the executive action, that this is something that presidents have done for decades.

Under the Antiquities Act, they have had this authority for roughly 100 years to essentially designate — designate lands for protection — or waters — without congressional approval. So that’s nothing new. What is interesting is President Obama, who has used that authority 11 times already to protect areas on land, had never used it in the ocean.

And what it reflects is actually a renewed focus on this driven by two members of his administration, John Podesta, his counselor who has worked on ocean issues for several years and really was pushing for this, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted the conference you referenced over the last two days.

Both of them were looking for the president to do something big, symbolic on this issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I referred in the introduction there to some opposition quickly voiced by Republicans. Are they seeing this differently from what President Bush did?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, it’s an interesting question.

I talked to Chairman Hastings about this, and one thing I asked is since President Bush actually created the initial monument in 2009, I asked him whether he had voiced concern then. He replied that he had not weighed in at all because he had not been on the Natural Resources Committee at that point.

But there was very little outcry from congressional Republicans when President Bush undertook several steps to declare parts of the ocean off-limits.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so let’s — starting with you, Joshua Reichert, what does it mean to declare a wide swathe of ocean a monument? What will not happen or what will happen there? How do you even protect — how do you do that?

JOSHUA REICHERT: The management plan — there needs to be a management plan that’s created for these areas, but I think the assumption here is, is that all extractive activity within the parameters of these monuments will be prohibited.

So the production of oil and gas, fishing, deep-sea mining, and these are — so, they’re areas that are designed to be set aside. And as Juliet indicated, the Antiquities Act has been used by presidents over the past century to protect areas like this.


JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know how much the plan is already set? Or is this what happens over the next period?

JULIET EILPERIN: This plan is not set, and they will have to work through it. They are going to get some public input. What’s interesting is, partially because this is something that really came together in recent weeks, is that there isn’t a detailed plan.

And, also, since the president could do this by themselves, there’s no designated time for how long they take public comment, but certainly they will be basically waiting to hear from folks over the next couple of months.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I know you reached out for a reaction from people in the fishing industry. So, what did they have to say about this?

JULIET EILPERIN: So, the members of the recreational fishing industry have some concerns about this — they received an exemption when this monument was created under President Bush — just because they don’t like the precedent of prohibiting sports fishing in any area.

And so they will be looking to keep that exemption and they are a little concerned about it. What’s interesting, the tuna industry, which operates in this region, hasn’t been public about where — how they will weigh in, but I’m quite confident they will express their concerns about this to the administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about how this plays out with other countries? How does it jibe or not jibe with what other countries are doing? Would there be questions about the U.S.’ rights in an area like this to take an action like that?

JOSHUA REICHERT: This is all within the jurisdiction of the United States, so there won’t be questions like that.

I think that what we’re seeing and what we have been seeing over the course of the past decade or two is a growing recognition of the value of the world’s oceans to people and the fact that they’re in trouble, and so that there has been more effort made over the course of the past several decades to protect areas of the ocean than has ever been made before.

The decision by a sitting president to designate an area as a national monument requires the balancing of different kinds of interests, economic, biological, cultural, aesthetic. And, clearly, in this case, two presidents have made a determination that the value of these areas far transcends the amount of profit that can be eked out of them every year by commercial fishing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that — to Juliet — that there might be more to come here in terms of more actions like this, specifically in the oceans? You were talking about actions that affect…


I think that’s actually an intriguing part of what President Obama said in his video today. He talked about the idea that he would use this authority in the future. And so I think we could expect that there would be further action.

And it also was interesting that, whether you’re talking about the president or his deputies, they were emphasizing the economic value of the ocean and arguing that there is in fact more economic benefit by putting part of it off-limits. And so I think we will see them making that case and using that in selected instances.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you expecting to see more?



JOSHUA REICHERT: And, in fact, we have been trying to over the course of the past five or six years to encourage the governments, various governments, the United States and others, to begin to construct the first generation of the world’s great marine parks similar to what was done on land.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, meantime, Juliet, briefly, there is this comment period coming, so anybody in industry or outside may weigh in, hijack this may change a bit.


So, that’s one of the interesting things, that the Commerce Department and the Interior Departments will be presumably holding some hearings, hearing from folks, and they will ultimately decide. They could go out to 200 miles from shore or they could pare it back. And so that’s what we will be watching in the weeks and months to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Juliet Eilperin and Joshua Reichert, thank you both very much.