Republican House members are urging President Trump to “think big” in his ongoing review of 27 national monuments, including opening up the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument not just to commercial fishing — but to oil, gas and mineral exploration.

The Trump administration has been pondering the future of the monuments for months, with a final announcement expected in December.

The proposal to open Papahanaumokuakea to commercial uses came in a Nov. 9 letter from a group of 24 Republicans who are active in the western caucus.

A school of Elegant Anthias, one of the most common fishes at Kure Atoll in Papahanaumokuakea Marine Monument.  Republican members of Congress want restrictions on fishing, as well as oil, gas and mineral extraction, in the monument lifted. Courtesy: NOAA

The letter writers want the boundaries of three of the four Pacific reserves —  Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll and Papahanaumokuakea — to be reduced in size and fishing restrictions to be lifted in all of the reserves.

But they only mentioned the possibility of energy extraction for Papahanaumokuakea and the Pacific Remote Islands reserve.

Problem is, there is no oil and gas development potential at Papahanamokuakea. The fight in Hawaii has been over whether to loosen commercial fishing restrictions in the monument

“It’s not applicable,” said William Aila Jr., former chairman of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources who’s now deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. “There is no oil or gas at Papahanaumokuakea.”

He said the only possible resource of that kind is something known as “manganese nodules,” metallic minerals found in rock-like formations in deep water on the seabed. But Aila said that it is so costly and difficult to obtain minerals in such remote locations that it is more “futuristic” than a viable economic opportunity.

Most of the letter writers hail from states where the federal government controls vast amounts of the land, and where the battle over national monuments has pitted conservationists against people who want to exploit coal, oil and natural gas opportunities.

Seven of them — Mark Amodei of Nevada, Kevin Kramer of North Dakota, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Doug LaMalfa of California, Pete Sessions of Texas and Don Young of Alaska — were named on Monday by a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, as the “2017 congressional anti-parks caucus.”

“The Administration’s attacks appear to have emboldened some members of Congress, whose long-term goals involve selling out parks and public lands to the highest bidder at the expense of the American people,” the Center wrote.

In their letter, the congressmen asked President Trump to take action to overturn what they call abuses of the Antiquities Act, the legislation that is used to create national monuments, which they called “an astonishing example of bad governance in our otherwise great country.”

They went on to list a number of monuments they believe should be reduced in size. Addressing Hawaii’s marine monument, Papahanamokuakea, they wrote that Trump should repeal “all fishing, oil and gas, mineral and energy development restrictions” on the marine reserve.

Spokesmen for the western caucus, Rep. LaMalfa, Rep. Young and Rep. Auma Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa did not respond to requests for comment about what energy sources or minerals they think can be extracted from Papahanaumokuakea.

NOAA map shows the U.S. exclusive economic zone boundaries and the four marine national monuments. Courtesy: NOAA Fisheries

Asked about oil production capability in waters off Hawaii, Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute, was flummoxed.

“Hawaii is not an oil-producing state,” she said, citing an updated analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that said, “Hawaii has no proven petroleum reserves or production.”

Aila, who advocated for the creation of Papahanaumokuakea, said he believed that the western congressional delegates who wrote the letter are uninformed about the marine reserve, which spans 1,200 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii.

“They don’t have any idea what a marine monument out here in the Pacific is, or what it entails,” he said in an interview. “They are expressing and applying their own interests from their own states and trying to apply it in all the states, including the Pacific.”

He said that members of Congress from states in the interior west may not be aware that oil and gas exploration typically occurs “on the continental shelf, and Hawaii doesn’t have one.”

Seth Horstmeyer, program director for Oceans5, an advocacy and grant-making group that promotes ocean conservation, has tracked the resources inside marine reserves at the Pew Charitable Trust and elsewhere. He said the letter is “more about politics than substance.”

“There are a number of Republicans who don’t like the Antiquities Act and think of it in the context of their own state, like Utah, without understanding how far away the Pacific is,” he said.

Trump is expected to go to Utah to announce his decision. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and much of the Utah delegation want two monuments in their state, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, to be reduced in size.

Horstmeyer and Aila said they have both been told that so far, Papahanaumokuakea has not been designated for a major reduction in size or for a change in uses.

Horstmeyer, who was involved in the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea, agreed that there are no economically feasible ways to extract energy or minerals from the marine reserve.

He believes the letter from the congressmen represented a last-ditch attempt by people who want to see fewer restrictions on national monuments to find a way to interest President Trump in targeting Hawaii’s marine reserve.

A male Hawaiian Pigfish at Kure Atoll inside the boundaries of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Courtesy: NOAA

The real fight in the marine monuments is over fishing rights.

The congressional letter writers refer to all four of the marine monuments in the Pacific, and say that all four of the monuments should have fishing restrictions lifted and be returned to oversight by regional fishery management councils.

The marine reserves include Papahanaumokuakea, which covers 583,000 square miles; Rose Atoll in American Samoa, 13,400 square miles; the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument in the central Pacific, 490,000 square miles; and the Marianas Trench Preserve in the Northern Marianas, 95,200 square miles.

Officials of the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council  have publicly pressed to have oversight of the fisheries restored to them and made available to American flag fishing fleets once again.

“Prior to monument designation,” Sylvia Spalding, a Wespac spokeswoman, said, the council had oversight under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act “over the fisheries seaward of Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands and possessions of the United States in the Pacific Ocean.”

The letter from the Republican members of Congress cites Kitty Simonds, executive director of Wespac, as saying the designations went too far, restricting access to fish from American waters and forcing consumers to eat imported fish.

Executive Director Kitty Simonds during WESPAC meeting held at Laniakea Auditorium.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds says fishing restrictions in the marine monuments go too far. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She called it “unbelievable that the government is kicking U.S. fishermen out of U.S. waters when the fishery is healthy.”

But Amy Kenney, president of the National Ocean Protection Coalition, said that Americans in general, and Hawaii residents in particular, overwhelmingly support marine monuments.

The Marine Conservation Institute reported that 99 percent of the people who sent comments to the Department of Commerce on the marine monuments wrote in defense of keeping protections.

“The people of Hawai’i have spoken loudly and clearly that they want this special place protected,” Kenney said. “Back in Washington, the Trump Administration controls the fate of Papahanaumokuakea. We are as eager to see the administration’s secretive report as everyone else.”

The fight over the monuments has been underway for eight months now.

On April 26, Trump initiated a review of 27 national monuments created under the Antiquities Act, asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to investigate whether the reserves posed unreasonable economic burdens on local people.

He also announced an executive order implementing what he called an “America-first Offshore Energy Strategy,” ordering Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to review whether the marine monuments were interfering with maximizing energy resources.

Both Zinke and Ross have submitted their reports to the president, but Trump has not announced his verdict.

Paul Achitoff, managing attorney for the Earthjustice Mid-Pacific office, said that if the Trump administration takes any action at all to change the four marine monuments his office will sue the federal government to stop it.

“If the administration reduces any of the protections of any of these monuments we’ll see them in court,” he said.

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