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Bush May Scale Back Plans For Marine Reserve

Two years ago, President Bush won high praise from a group that's been largely critical of him: environmentalists. They were elated after the president declared a huge area near Hawaii a protected marine monument.

The White House is now trying to secure the president's place in ocean history with a similar preserve elsewhere in the Pacific. Only this time, the political sailing isn't so smooth, and the administration may be scaling back its ambitious plans.

The heart of the new marine monument would be in U.S. territorial waters north of Guam — the Northern Mariana Islands.

Ike Cabrerra, from the island of Saipan, is one of just a handful of people who have ever made it to the north end of the island chain.

"There's no place in the world compared to this area," Cabrerra said. "Most of the islands are volcano."

A Plea For Protection

The waters are rich with undisturbed sea life and home to some of the world's most majestic underwater geology, including the deepest canyon in the ocean, the Mariana Trench. But all is not perfect in paradise. While locals like Cabrerra support a marine preserve, their elected officials do not.

So Cabrerra traveled to Washington to lobby for the protected area. His traveling companion, Andrew Salas, said the politicians don't object to conservation, but they are upset with the federal government. It seems Uncle Sam recently took control of immigration policy for the Northern Marianas and also instituted the federal minimum wage.

"So this awesome idea to protect those islands came in at the wrong time, and everyone thought, 'Oh, another federal intervention,' " Salas said.

Salas and Cabrerra went to the White House this week to plead for complete protection for an area the size of Arizona. They brought with them petitions signed by businesses, schoolchildren and 6,000 local residents. The island only has 10,000 voters.

Salas said a protected area isn't just good for the environment, but tourism could boost local businesses like his. He owns the Hawaii Bar and Grill on Saipan.

"I'm actually going to change the name of that thing as soon as this thing gets declared. I'm going to make it the Mariana Trench Bar and Grill," he said.

But to declare complete success, the conservation group will not only have to trump the local politicians: Other interest groups have been marching into the White House with requests to argue against a fully protected monument.

Potential Conflicts

Gordon Robertson of the American Sportfishing Association pleaded his organization's case: "Let's not make a designation and foreclose this recreational fishing right up front, because it is compatible with conservation and it is easily controlled."

The huge Hawaiian monument designated two years ago bans fishing. That did not sit well with Robertson.

"I would like to think that if that opportunity presented itself again, it would be done differently," he said.

The White House might not fully protect the area off the Northern Marianas, even though the place is so remote that there's essentially no fishing there.

The same could be true for other sites in the Pacific that the White House is also considering. The potential conflicts aren't just fishing, but include possible military uses, cultural activities, and mining and energy development, said James Connaughton, who's in charge of this issue at the White House.

"What we're trying to do is sort out where there are, in fact, some conflicting uses and sort out where those concerns don't actually exist," Connaughton said.

That could mean scaling back the size of some of the proposed preserves, or not offering complete protection everywhere.

Jay Nelson of the Pew Environment Group said so little of the ocean is undisturbed that he wants the White House to fully protect as much as it possibly can.

"They run the risk, if they start to listen to too many constituencies, of making essentially everyone unhappy," he said.

And, at this point, time is running short. Connaughton said that, in the end, he may hand off all the work he has done to the Obama administration.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.