But now, as he’s leaving office, the 43rd president is attempting to “blue” his legacy by granting national-monument status to a string of pristine islands, atolls and coral reefs in the center of the Pacific Ocean. Even those most critical of Bush’s environmental policies have voiced support for what could be the largest conservation initiative in American history, one that would protect wildlife by completely prohibiting commercial activity.
That’s good news for plummeting ocean diversity. The designated area boasts 19 species of whales and dolphins, giant clams, sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and 14 million birds, including many of the last albatross and boobies. Endangered and threatened species are rarely found in such profusion elsewhere on the planet. Don Palawski, a Pacific Islands refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the region is a model of what healthy coral-reef ecosystems should look like and, if well-preserved, could teach us how to better steward damaged reefs closer to civilization.
Although public opinion on the few inhabited islands leans in favor of the plan, the Northern Marianas House of Representatives voted against monument designation, citing fear over future fishing restrictions. A similar proposal for islands off North Carolina and in the Gulf of Mexico was dropped last year after vigorous opposition from industrial fishing interests.
Somewhat ironically, Bush’s best ally in this battle may be climate change. With warmer waters and spiking ocean acidity eroding coral reefs, and 90 percent of the world’s predatory fish—such as tuna, sharks and swordfish—eradicated, conservation takes on a new urgency. “It is imperative,” says Lance Morgan, vice president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, “to fully protect this monument.”