Try this on a globe sometime, or Google Earth: Looking head-on at the planet, spin it until Hawaii is a little north and east of center. What you’ll see — besides the barest fringes of America and Asia up there, New Guinea and New Zealand down there, and lots of island dots — is all blue.
This is the vast stage on which President Bush is trying to salvage his environmental legacy.
It’s strange but true. Mr. Bush, who has been monumentally indifferent to the health of continents and the atmosphere, is going down in history as a protector of the oceans.
On Tuesday, he designated three huge areas of the western Pacific as national monuments, declaring that their fish, birds, reefs and other marine life were more important than commercial fishing, drilling and mineral extraction. The protected waters encircle the Northern Mariana Islands (including the Mariana Trench, the deepest canyon on Earth) and parts of a sprawling collection of reefs and atolls known as the Line Islands.
They are a dazzling world of undersea volcanoes, pristine reefs, endangered seals, turtles and whales and intact food chains ruled by sharks.
In protecting nearly 200,000 square miles of ocean, an area far bigger than California, Mr. Bush has outdone his decision in 2006 to set aside 140,000 square miles in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
That created a single monument larger than all the country’s national parks combined. If you judge the actions of presidential conservationists solely by the sheer size of planetary surface they protected during their time in office, Mr. Bush would outdo even Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.
This record, though, has enormous asterisks:
*The new monuments are not nearly as big as they could have been. Mr. Bush could have set their boundaries anywhere from 3 miles from the shores of the territories they encircle to the full 200 miles under United States jurisdiction. He chose 50 miles, excluding huge expanses of deep ocean.
*The protections could have been more stringent. They don’t rule out recreational fishing, for example, and do not include waters above the Mariana Trench.
*Big as they are, the monuments are not nearly enough to offset eight years of Mr. Bush’s bad environmental policies, marked by inaction on climate change, the sacrifice of millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas exploration, and indifference bordering on hostility to endangered species and fragile ecosystems.
Given that record, why did he create these new ocean monuments over the reported objections of Vice President Dick Cheney and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a notorious enabler of reckless overfishing by commercial fleets?
We can take him at his word that it was the right thing to do, but we have to note as well that the areas protected are staggeringly far away and not notably prized by the corporate interests whose priorities the Bush administration has for so long made its own.
There was no fight involved. All it took was Mr. Bush’s signature under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to protect public lands by executive order. An environmental trophy was lying on the ground, and Mr. Bush, with just days left in his presidency, simply picked it up.
It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama to take it from here. He should expand the monuments to the 200-mile limit and give them full protection against fishing and other exploitation. His administration should also work to create and expand marine protected areas closer to our shores.
But those are just the easy lifts in a huge list of environmental tasks ahead, starting with the long-neglected fight against global warming. Melting ice caps and ocean acidification are an urgent threat to the very fish, reefs and islands that Mr. Bush lately has seen fit to protect.
reprint of NY Times editorial January 6 2009