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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 2, 2002

Service cuts at Midway Atoll raise protests

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Midway Phoenix Corp.'s announcement that it will stop providing airport, utility and tourism services on Midway Atoll has raised a firestorm of criticism — most of it aimed not at Midway Phoenix but at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cleared ironwood trees at Midway Atoll, which angered those who see it as a move to denude the site. The agency says it wants to improve ground nesting habitat restore native vegetation.
Many appear to fear that the company's departure will mean the end of public access to Midway. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, insists that it is committed to continued public use of the site.

The agency will find another operator or multiple operators to run facilities if Midway Phoenix leaves, but the company has not said it is pulling out, said Rob Shallenberger, deputy project leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Midway Phoenix executive vice president Bob Tracey said the company has stopped flights to the atoll, is no longer accepting reservations for visitors and "we're demobilizing our operation as we speak."

He said the company hasn't had time to send a formal letter of withdrawal.

However, Tracey also said the company would like to stay but under different circumstances — perhaps with a government stipend to help cover its losses, or in partnership with a different government agency than the Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said the company concluded that it cannot recoup its investment in running Midway under the restrictions that the Fish and Wildlife Service places on it. The service is so committed to its views of conservation that it does not concede the needs of a commercial operator, he said.

Among the complaints: Fish and Wildlife Service officials have chopped down scenic trees, limited visitors' access to many areas and ordered Midway Phoenix to deny landing rights at times to planes seeking to refuel, from which the company makes a profit.

"Unfortunately, we're dealing with the wrong agency," he said.

Ultimately, another Department of Interior agency, such as the National Park Service, would have been a better partner, Tracey said, since it has more experience dealing with private business entities.

Midway, an atoll near the end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, lies 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. It has a firm place in military history — the battle that turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific occurred around it. It continued as a Navy base through the mid-1990s, and tens of thousands of military personnel and contractors have stayed there. Many developed a deep love for the place, and have returned as visitors during the past five years.

It also has a long history as a wildlife refuge. The other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were designated a seabird refuge in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, but Roosevelt turned over Midway to the Navy. Despite a century of human activity, it remained dense with nesting seabirds, and was regularly visited by seals and turtles. When the Navy had no more use for it, the Fish and Wildlife Service took over.

In an unusual step, the service invited a contractor to manage the old military base, run its airport and establish an eco-tourist and history tour center, partly as a way to defray its expenses in managing such a remote site.

Midway Phoenix has been the contractor for more than five years. It said it has sunk nearly $20 million into the island and now does not believe it can make a profit there, given the service's aggressive conservation stances.

The service makes no apologies for its efforts at preservation, which it sees as its mission.

A point of contention is trees. Tracey concedes that early photographs of the island show no trees at all, and that imported trees were planted by the Navy for both shade and to retain eroding sand.

Most people who have visited the island during the past half century have known a Midway thick with trees, and many are appalled by the Fish and Wildlife Service's removal of all the trees from Eastern Island, one of the two largest islands within Midway Atoll, and the removal of a small portion of the trees on Sand Island, where human activity is centered.

"This (Eastern) was the island from which the bombers and fighter planes flew from in World War II," said Michael Denison, who worked on Midway as a contractor in 1940 and 1941. "It is one of the very few places belonging to the United States that a battle was waged from during that war.ÊNow it is naked."

Bob Wilson, a Midway Phoenix employee and the harbormaster at Midway, said: "There is a map showing the areas of priority for tree removal on Sand Island (the only inhabited island in the atoll), with the stated intention to have all trees removed in 15 years."

Shallenberger said his staff has removed about 10 percent of the ironwood trees on Sand Island, and plans to cut down the trees from another one or two coastal acres, to provide additional habitat for black-footed albatross, a species whose numbers are declining. He said the service does not intend to remove all the trees, and said some species on Sand Island, notably terns, have begun using ironwood trees for nesting habitat.

But the service is also actively planting. The trees being removed are mostly introduced ironwoods. The service wants Midway revegetated with native species, most of which are much lower-growing than ironwoods. "Naked" Eastern Island is in the intermediate stage between ironwood removal and a new growth of native coastal plants, said the Fish and Wildlife Services public information officer Barbara Maxfield.

Wilson said he believes Fish and Wildlife Service officials ultimately want all humans off the Northwestern Hawaiians Islands so the agency's personnel can have the islands to themselves.

"These 'island paradises' are entirely supported by tax dollars, but the various agencies are quite reluctant to have any 'outsiders' see how they spend the monies supplied by taxpayers," Wilson said.

Guy Haggard, a Florida resident who once lived on Midway, agrees: "My opinion is that the real aim of FWS is eliminate any evidence of man on Midway."

Maxfield said that perception is incorrect.

"We saw it as a unique opportunity to experience a remote island wildlife spectacle and a historical treasure," she said. "We were convinced it could be done, and I don't think we've changed our minds on that."