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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 24, 2006

Midway set to spread its tourism wings again

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

A sooty tern in the nesting colony at French Frigate Shoals challenges a human intruder banding chicks last June. The northwestern islands are a wildlife refuge and tourism is centered only on Midway Atoll.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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For more information about Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, visit www.fws.gov/midway.

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When President Bush established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument in June, he created the largest protected area in the country and the world's largest marine preserve.

The chain of islands stretching west from Ni'ihau joined the Statue of Liberty in New York, Muir Woods in California and Mount St. Helens in Washington as national monuments.

And while other national monuments have proven to be magnets for tourists, it is unlikely the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will ever draw more than a couple of thousand per year.

Regular tourism activities on Midway Atoll, one of the largest islands in the chain, may be allowed beginning next year, but only on a limited basis.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a draft visitor services plan and may start a regularly scheduled visitor program as early as mid-2007, said Barbara Maxfield, spokeswoman for the Pacific Islands office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Officials envision a "small-scale program" probably fewer than 30 visitors at a time that would focus on the wildlife and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Maxfield said. Visitor activities would be limited to Midway Atoll, which had a tourism program in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

"This is all very preliminary until we have an approved visitor services plan, but we would very much like to welcome visitors back on a more regular basis ... (to) share all of the wildlife and the historic features of not only Midway but certainly as a window to the marine national monument as well," Maxfield said.

Midway Atoll lies about 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu and is near the end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In addition to being a national wildlife refuge, Midway Atoll was the focus of a June 1942 naval battle that is considered a pivotal point of World War II in the Pacific.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service took over Midway from the Navy in 1996, it hired Midway Phoenix Corp. to manage the atoll's airport and other facilities and run an ecotourism operation. Visitors usually stayed about a week and went diving and snorkeling, watched seabirds, fished and toured historic military sites.

An estimated 12,162 people visited Midway between 1997 and 2001 an average of 200 people a month according to a 2005 Midway Atoll visitor program study commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Visitors stayed in the restored three-story, 36-room bachelor officer quarters at the former military base and usually ate in what was formerly the Navy mess hall with atoll staff. Other facilities include the Clipper House restaurant, which was built by Midway Phoenix Corp., a museum, gymnasium and bowling alley.

But the visitor program ended in 2002 when Midway Phoenix shut down its operation in a dispute with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since then, the Fish and Wildlife Service has continued to accommodate visitors who primarily arrive via cruise ship but there has been no regularly scheduled tourism program. The number of visitors varies from year to year; Midway hosted about 1,780 visitors in 2004, and only 250 this year, Maxfield said. About 60 to 70 residents mostly contractors and Fish and Wildlife Service staff live on Midway.

Kailua residents E.K. and Marianne Whiting visited Midway three times before regular visitor operations closed. E.K. Whiting, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot, said he would be interested in returning to the atoll.

The Whitings enjoyed watching the "amazing birdlife" of thousands of albatrosses, snorkeling and touring military sites. They biked around the islands, saw monk seals and spinner dolphins, and took a boat excursion in the lagoon.

On one trip, they were among just seven visitors at the atoll, E.K. Whiting said.

"The birdlife and the history are not available anywhere else in the world," he said.

Maxfield declined to provide more details about the proposed visitor program because the plan has not yet been made public. The Midway draft visitor plan which includes an environmental assessment is expected to be released for public review and comment early next year. If public comments are supportive, officials would finalize the plan and send it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional director in Portland to be signed. Then a regularly scheduled visitor program can begin, Maxfield said.

The wildlife service uses a small charter aircraft to transport its employees and has been looking into other air transportation, but hasn't secured anything definite yet, Maxfield said.

"We have always known that there is a substantial interest in bringing more people out to Midway," Maxfield said. "We certainly have always wanted to welcome visitors back out there."

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has been included in discussions about visitor activities on Midway, is cautious but keeping an open mind, said department director Peter Young. The department recognizes there has been military and recreational activity at the atoll in the past, but "that doesn't mean ... that we should automatically jump in and have a big recreational activity going on," he said.

"Having had the opportunity to visit the place, it's important to me that somehow we find a way for some people to be able to experience that as well," Young said. "And the question then becomes, 'OK, what is that, and what amount is it?' "

"Let's not jump into anything ... it is a special place and as such we need to make sure that our decisions are not made for today, but really made for tomorrow."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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