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The Creation of a National Monument: San Juan Islands

San Juan Islands (Credit NOAA)

Recently there has been an explosion of new marine protected areas (MPAs) being proposed or created around the world. In the last month at least six countries have strengthened regulations on existing MPAs, expanded Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), designated new MPAs or have made proposals for new MPAs! And these are no tiny MPAs, Cook Islands has announced a new MPA covering 1.1 million square kilometers, which is the size of Bolivia or Ethiopia! While New Caledonia announced an MPA that will be 1.4 million square kilometers and will connect to 1 million square kilometers already protected by Australia, combined this is almost the size of all of India! This is quite the feat for a country with only 18,576 square kilometers of land area!

Map of San Juan Islands (Credit Washington State Parks)

At the same time that we are seeing great leaps in MPA creation around the world, here in the U.S. measures to create marine protected areas are being stalled. Since the 1990s no new marine sanctuaries have been formed due to a moratorium on the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and Marine Reserves and other forms of protection must be passed by Congress. Currently, a bill to create a National Conservation Area (NCA) in Washington State has been halted in Congress in part by Representatives in Washington State that do not support the creation of the NCA. This is contrary to local community support including over 150 businesses, 5,000 individuals, local and state tourism and conservation organizations, as well as other Congressional members. In order to bypass this stall in Congress, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, sent a letter to the President petitioning him to declare the area a National Monument.

Rose Atoll (Credit NOAA)

A National Monument can be created by the President through a public proclamation to protect sites of historic and scientific importance found on federally owned lands. This ability was granted through the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and has been utilized in the creation of numerous protected areas. Two marine areas that were protected by a Presidential declaration by George W. Bush and the Antiquities Act are the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (2006), and the Pacific Islands National Marine Monuments (2009) which includes Rose Atoll Monument, Marianas Trench Monument, and the Pacific Remote Islands Monument.

Marine Conservation Institute was integrally involved in the process of the creation of the Pacific Islands National Marine Monuments and supports the use of the Antiquities Act to protect the best areas in our nation’s oceans. There is need for more protection of the ocean habitats in U.S. waters, yet there are few pathways to get this goal accomplished, and many are hindered by bureaucracy and politics. Thus, the Antiquities Act is an important tool for bypassing these roadblocks. However, the Antiquities Act does have its drawbacks, such as bypassing public participation and environmental review requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

Harbor Seal (Credit NOAA)
Seabirds (Credit NOAA)

In the case of the San Juan Islands proposed conservation area, the lands meet the requirements of the Antiquities Act in that they are historically important, with numerous historic sites such as old lighthouses, cabins of early settlers, and Native American plank-home sites and burial grounds. In addition, these lands are home to unique habitats, haul out sites for harbor seals, nesting grounds for sea birds, and are home to endangered species, including endangered molluscs. The use of the Antiquities Act to form a National Monument in this area may be a good use of the Act since there is strong local support for the formation of a protected area and the bureaucracy of Congress is the major reason it has not yet been designated.

San Juan Islands (Credit NOAA)

How you can help! Learn more about the Antiquities Actand other ways of creating MPAs. If you would like to show your support for the formation of the San Juan Island Conservation Area or National Monument contact your state’s congressional representatives and let them know! Also visit the San Juan Islands National Conservation Area website and show your support on their Act Now page.