WASHINGTON - Although White House officials officials had pressed to finalize a protection plan on the coral reef reserve that Bill Clinton created in the Northwestern Hawaiians Islands before President George W. Bush took office, there is still no final decision.
Commercial fishing groups protested the reserve plan, but officials say the public favors the designation.
With that in mind, George Frampton Jr., outgoing chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is certain that the support for Clintons main environmental legacy in Hawaii eventually will convince most skeptics.
Under a provision enacted in the waning days of the last Congress, Clinton created an 84-million-acre reserve in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a chain of nearly pristine atolls 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian islands. It is the largest environmentally protected area in the United States and sets the strongest level of protection for oceans to date.
The executive order issued in early December caps commercial and recreational fishing at current levels but allows Hawaiian subsistence and cultural uses of the area. Fishing and other activities would be prohibited in about 4 percent of the area, under a proposal put out for public comment last month.
Federal officials held seven hearings on the plan in Honolulu, Kona, Hilo, Lihue, Wailuku and Kaunakakai as well as in Washington.
The 30-day comment period expired Jan. 8, but officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Commerce Department overseeing development of the reserve, said they still are cataloging responses.
Justin Kenney, a spokes-man for the Council on Environmental Quality, said the government received some 8,400 comments during the period, including 500 "unique" comments and 7,900 form letters, postcards and the like.
"After all the hullabaloo, it appears that the plan was embraced by the state 100 percent," Frampton said, adding that response at the hearings was overwhelmingly supportive. "There was a lot of skepticism out there, but once we explained it, there was basically agreement."
Sen. Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii) protested that the reserve designation did not provide for enough public input and deliberation, but Frampton said the administration did everything Inouye asked for.
"I went to him in the spring and he said he wanted a real comprehensive visioning process, and we did it," Frampton said, referring to a series of meetings on the proposal held last summer in Hawaii.
"And now weve done it again," with the latest round of hearings, he said.
"There has been a tremendous amount of public process involved," Frampton said. The resulting support "shows that when you take leadership, you can alleviate the suspicion, the lack of information, the nervousness about how this works, and protect the coral reefs."
Supporters and critics of Clinton agree that his broad environmental legacy nationwide will be difficult to undo.
President Bush and other GOP opponents already are talking of reviewing each of Clintons decrees to create roadless areas, designate national monuments and protect other areas with an eye to repeal. But proponents and opponents believe it will be difficult to roll back the restrictions because of the evenly divided Congress and because the protected areas have captured public support.
Clinton issued more executive orders protecting Americas wild lands than any national leader since Theodore Roosevelt, who created the national park system.
Using the Antiquities Act of 1906, Clinton unilaterally established 18 national monuments - including seven last Wednesday - and expanded the boundaries of three others. The monuments, which include more than 5.6 million acres mainly in the West, will provide additional protections for land that already is owned and managed by the federal government.
Besides the reserve in Hawaii, Clinton created coral reef reserves in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two weeks ago, he pushed through the Forest Service a regulatory ban on the development of new roads and most logging in about 58 million acres, or about a third, of the national forests. Environmentalists also point to new clean air regulations and efforts to save more endangered species.