Bush to protect Pacific island

President Bush next week will seek formal comment from his Cabinet agencies on a plan that could make three of the world’s most remote and pristine island chains off limits to commercial fishing and mineral exploration.

The action, which could be completed before Bush leaves office, would rank as one of the largest marine conservation efforts in history.

Bush’s proposal would conserve parts of the Northern Mariana islands, the Line Islands in the central Pacific and American Samoa, environmentalists who participated in a 40-minute conference call about the plan on Friday told The Associated Press. Making them off limits to fishing and energy development is the most stringent of the possible measures outlined.

The proposal is expected to be made public as soon as Monday, when the White House plans to send a memo to Cabinet members, including the Defense, Interior and Commerce secretaries, and the Council on Environmental Quality.

They will evaluate various levels of protection for the three areas and the impacts of establishing marine reserves. The review is expected to take one to two months, the participants said.

“We have every expectation that the president will move forward on protecting these places sometime in the fall,” said Diane Regas, the ocean program director at Environmental Defense Fund, who was on the phone call Friday.

“Today we put the champagne on ice, and we will pop it open.”

Two years ago, the president made a huge swath of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, barring fishing, oil and gas extraction and tourism from its waters and coral reefs. The area is the single largest conservation area on the planet.

It is unclear if Bush will designate these new areas as monuments, or use another executive mechanism that would allow limited fishing and other activities.

Conservation groups have been lobbying the White House to set aside 115,000 square miles of the Northern Mariana islands as a marine monument.

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