America's Newest National Monument a Wonder Few Can Visit

America's newest national monument boasts crystalline blue water, unspoiled islands with white sand beaches and vast reefs teeming with marine life, including 7,000 species found nowhere else on Earth.

But unlike Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will never be a place visitors can see by just packing their bags and showing up.

And Hawaiians themselves are unsure how much access they will have.

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Remoteness is one factor, as the islands are scattered across 1,400 miles of the Pacific. No public flights have landed at the sole airport, on Midway Atoll, since 2002, and cruise ships make only occasional stops.

Federal authorities also have long put strict limits on who can set foot in the area to protect its endangered monk seals, nesting green sea turtles and other rare species, along with some 14 million nesting seabirds.

President George W. Bush created the vast marine sanctuary last week.

"It is a place to maintain biodiversity and to maintain basically the nurseries of the Pacific," said Conrad C. Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will manage nearly all of the protected area.

The few people familiar with the riches held by the string of islands — Hawaiians who revere the area, researchers and a handful of fishermen — are waiting to find out how the area's new status will affect their access to the area.

William Aila, who has been fighting to protect the area since 1986, was pleased the president provided the maximum protection for the area.

"For Hawaiians, it's really a reconnection and taking responsibility for these islands to the north of us, what we consider our elder islands," he said.

Aila is a Hawaiian activist, fisherman and Democratic candidate for governor, as well as a member of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Council, which had been advising federal authorities in what had been a multiyear process to make the islands a marine sanctuary.

He said commercial fishing does not belong in the islands and the president was right to put a five-year phase-out on the eight or nine permits in effect for the area.

But Aila said he is concerned about what traditional Hawaiian fishermen will be allowed to do in the area. According to the president's proclamation: "Any monument resource harvested from the monument will be consumed in the monument."

Hawaiian oral histories tell of a long tradition of bringing fish back from the islands to share with family, he said, and feathers molted annually by the red-tailed tropicbird are needed to restore historic Hawaiian capes held in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, said her organization is concerned about the commercial fishing phase-out.

"It looks good to the rest of the world. But as far as I'm concerned, it was an easy declaration because no one lives there," she said. "So all you have are the few fishermen who would like to continue their livelihoods there.

"What happened to the American dream?" Simonds said.

Scientists also want to know more about the declaration's effects.

"We don't know the details of what this designation will mean for the research. But we're hopeful that we'll be able to continue a robust research project up there," said Malia Rivera, just returned last weekend from a three-week research trip to the islands with the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Rivera is research and outreach coordinator for a project that is in its second year of studying issues such as coral disease and species migration.

The area is one of the few places in the world where researchers can experience such an untouched marine environment, she said.

That is how the monument should stay, said Dennis Heinemann, senior scientist with The Ocean Conservancy.

"As a people, for cultural reasons and spiritual reasons, it's important to have a few places in the world that are as untouched as we can make them," he said.

Heinemann said the president "understood that ... and saw how important it was to create a place, in the oceans, that could show us what the oceans used to be like and what they could be like in the future."