President Obama created the largest national park on the planet Friday, expanding a national marine monument off the coast of Hawaii to encompass more than a half-million square miles of land and sea.
The move, which more than quadruples the size of the Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Papa-ha-now-moh-koo-ah-kay-ah) Marine National Monument, came one day after the 100th birthday of the National Park System, arguably one of our country’s greatest inventions. (For those of you scoring at home, the park system was created August 25, 1916.)
At the center of the expanded monument is a 1,200-mile-long archipelago, which has been known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands since President George W. Bush established Papahānaumokuākea as a monument in 2006. The island chain lies about 270 miles northwest of Oahu, and is at least 50 nautical miles from dry land in all directions.
The monument is so remote, there isn’t infrastructure to support extended tourism—no resorts, no Four Seasons with overwater bungalows are on the docket for next year. Still, the monument has established itself as a hot spot for recreational fishing and the expanded park will continue to be just that. All commercial extraction activities, including commercial fishing and any future deep-sea mining, will be off-limits. Papahānaumokuākea will also allow the removal of resources for traditional Hawaiian cultural purposes and scientific research—so long as you have the proper permits, of course.
According to an article in the Washington Post, the archipelago is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. It features the world’s largest seabird gathering site, where more than 14 million birds from 22 species return every year. Papahānaumokuākea also has proven to be a safe haven for endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtles, and Laysan albatrosses.
Recent research expeditions have unearthed other extraordinary features in the area, including the world’s oldest living animal (a black coral estimated to be 4,500 years old) and six massive seamounts, one of which is nearly 14,000 feet high. This area also includes the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway in 1942 and has not been visited since it was discovered there in 1998.
While a number of international nonprofit groups cheered the decision, the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea was not without controversy. Longline fishermen lobbied against the decision, arguing that the new protections effectively close to fishing 60 percent of federal waters off Hawaii. Federal officials disagreed, estimating only 5 percent of current commercial fishing efforts will be displaced.
Our opinion: It’s hard to argue against conservation, especially in a place as beautiful as this one.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com