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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 26, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY

                    The James S. Brady Briefing Room

10:15 P.M. EDT

MR. SIEWERT: As you know, the President's traveling to Assateague, Maryland, today to make some environmental announcements to protect our nation's oceans. Here to brief on those are Jim Baker, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and David Hayes, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department. I'll turn it over to Mr. Baker.

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: Good morning. On this eve of Memorial Day, when millions of Americans will be heading off to the nation's coasts to enjoy the many benefits of those special places, it's my pleasure to introduce two very new important efforts by the President to protect our ocean and coastal resources, and to protect the communities and economies that depend on them.

In response to declines in ocean health, and increasing pressures on coastal and marine resources, many nations, including the United States, are increasingly turning to what we call marine protected areas to help save their most valued coastal habitats. The United States has a long history of doing this -- of establishing and benefiting from protected areas on land, at federal, state and local areas. National parks, wilderness areas, state and national forests, city parks are some of our most treasured areas.

We've made significant progress in establishing these different kinds of protected areas on land, but similar efforts to protect marine areas have lagged behind. For example, of the 700 million acres of land and sea that are currently in federally protected marine areas, such as national parks and national marine sanctuaries, about 20 percent are in coastal areas, and only 2 percent of that 700 million are in marine areas. Globally, less than one percent of the planet's marine environment has been designated for special protection, compared to over six percent of the planet's land area. And the oceans cover 70 percent of the earth's surface.

The President convened the National Ocean Conference in 1988, and scientists and resource managers from around the world argued that marine protected areas should be part of the management that we use to stem the tide of degradation of fisheries, habitat and beaches, and help sustain use of our ocean and coastal resources.

We've had two recent federal actions -- the National Ocean Conference Report, which is called "Turning To The Sea," and the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, the national action plan to conserve coral reefs. These call on the federal government and many of the state, territorial and nongovernmental partners to expand and strengthen our marine areas throughout the United States.

We know that if these are properly designed and effectively managed, these protected areas can safeguard natural resources, they can provide public access and enjoyment of ocean and coastal areas, and they can sustain economic opportunities by protecting and restoring ocean and coastal habitats.

We do not have today an integrated, comprehensive system of marine protected areas that represents all of the nation's coastal and marine environments. We need to have an expanded and strengthened comprehensive system of marine protected areas to conserve our natural and cultural heritage, and for the economically and ecologically sustainable use of U.S. marine waters.

So let me make the announcements today. The President will sign an executive order on marine protected areas, and it has the following purposes: One, to strengthen the management, protection and conservation of existing marine protected areas and establish new or expanded marine protected areas; to work to develop a scientifically based and comprehensive national system of marine protected areas, representing all of the very diverse U.S. marine ecosystems and our cultural resources; and to avoid causing harm to marine protected areas through federally conducted, approved or funded activities.

The order will direct each of the relevant agencies with authority to establish or manage marine protected areas to take appropriate actions to enhance or expand protection and establish or recommend, as appropriate, new marine protected areas. It directs the Department of Commerce and the Department of Interior, in consultation with other federal agencies, to develop a national system of marine protected areas, and to coordinate and share information, tools, strategies, and provide guidance to further expand and enhance the protection of marine protected areas.

To help fulfill the order, the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in cooperation with the Department of Interior, will establish a marine protected area center to help develop a framework for a national system of these protected areas. And we will partner with government and nongovernmental entities -- that includes federal, state, territorial, tribal, local governments to provide information technologies and strategies to support the national system.

Now, also in the order, we've directed the Environmental Protection Agency to take new steps to limit pollution of beaches, oceans and coasts, by beginning to develop new science-based water quality standards for marine waters. The order directs the Department of Commerce and the Department of Interior to consult with states, commonwealths, territories, regional fishery management councils and all other important partners in an effort to protect and sustain the health and benefits of our coasts, our ocean and our estuaries.

To begin implementing this new executive order, today the President will direct the Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Interior to work with the State of Hawaii and the regional fishery management council there to develop a plan within 90 days to permanently protect one of the nation's most spectacular ocean areas, the coral reef ecosystem of the northwest Hawaiian Islands. This covers an area of about 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. It is an extensive coral reef ecosystem that has 12,000 square kilometers of coral reefs with fish, invertebrates, birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, and just a wonderful assemblage of marine life there.

We know that the coral reef ecosystems in the northwest Hawaiian Islands make up over 60 percent of all of the U.S. coral reefs. And we know that coral reefs are the nursery ground for many of our commercial fisheries.

This ecosystem is home to a variety of, also, federally protected species -- the threatened green sea turtle, the endangered leatherback, the hawksbill turtle, and the only remaining population of the endangered monk seal. It's also the site of one of the oldest national wildlife refuges, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge; it was designated in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt. And the attempt here is to expand that protection.

Today, the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce, in coordination with the state of Hawaii, and in consultation with the Western Pacific Management Council, are directed to initiate a process to develop recommendations for a new coordinated management regime to increase the protection of the coral reef ecosystem there. The process will begin with what we call visioning sessions, proposed by Senator Inouye, that will integrate public comments to help shape the final recommendations.

Marine protected areas are a very important management tool, with the unique potential to help communities use, protect and sustainably use their valuable marine and coastal resources. And they play a key role in helping us rebuild the nation's commercial fisheries. These two announcements mark an important milestone in the nation's stewardship of oceans and coastal resources, and the beginnings of a national system for protection for future generations.

Now I'd like to turn to David Hayes, who has a few remarks from Interior.

DEPUTY SECRETARY HAYES: Thank you, Jim. Jim covered the President's actions today very well. I'd just like to supplement his comments with a few additional points.

First, I'd like to emphasize that this is not something that is new. This administration has been working very hard over the last seven and a half years to focus on the protection of oceans. And in particular, the President and the Vice President, in June of 1998 in Monterey, announced the beginning of what is culminating today: a special look at marine areas to see if we need more protection.

And over the last two years, through the Coral Reef Task Force that was formed in June of 1998, and also through some other interagency efforts, we've worked hard together as a team in the federal family to come up with, for the first time, an integrated look at our oceans across the agencies.

It's very significant. The notion of a marine protected area is not a notion that we have today. What we do have today are some areas in the ocean environment that get special protection. And they're very important areas, and they're important areas that you are aware of. The National Park Service, for example, has 54 units that protect marine resources, with over 3 million acres of marine waters covered -- Glacier Bay in Alaska, by way of example; the Everglades; Biscayne Bay; Assateague, where the President and we will be traveling this afternoon. All are protecting important areas of the marine environment.

Likewise, the national wildlife refuge system has many units -- in fact, more than 40 units -- that have special protections for marine areas. Jim mentioned the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1909 -- very important protection for marine areas. Also, of course, the Department of Commerce, Jim's jurisdiction, covers many marine sanctuaries.

But to date, these different protections have all been fragmented. And for the first time under the executive order, there's going to be a requirement that the agencies work together and look together at the protections that we have, and determine whether we need new protections or not.

I'd like to emphasize that we are not changing the legal structure at all today of how we protect marine environments. We are still going to proceed under the current authorities. So there's no new action today that is going to change the balance, in terms of legal mechanisms and approaches that we take in looking to decide whether we need to protect more areas. But for the first time, in deciding whether we want to move forward in protection, we're going to look across the ocean environment, and not on a fragmented basis through the Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA or the National Park Service. It's a very significant -- very significant in that regard.

And obviously, in terms of the oceans, they know no jurisdictional bounds. The oceans and marine resources that we have don't care if the protection is under the National Park Service or the Department of Commerce, or the National Wildlife Refuge system. But we need to recognize that to protect those marine resources, we need to look across our fragmented system.

Let me close with another emphasis on the importance of the northwest Hawaiian Islands memorandum that the President is announcing today. As Jim explained, the President is asking for a 90-day review of whether we need more protection in the northwest Hawaiian Islands of marine resources.

This area has been identified by the Coral Reef Task Force, which was formed in June of 1998, as the most important coral resource in the United States. In fact, fully 70 percent of the coral reefs in the United States are in this area of the northwest Hawaiian Islands. We have current protection for much of the area through the National Wildlife Refuge that the Department of the Interior operates there. But many of the coral reefs are, in fact, outside the current boundaries of the refuge.

So the President is asking us to decide whether we should extend the boundaries, working closely with the governor and the congressional delegation and other interested parties; should we extend the boundaries, should there be more protection? That 90-day review is going to be very important, and we'll see if there is a conclusion out of that review for more protection.

So, thank you very much. Any questions?

Q Some of these things you're talking about, whether it's an EPA regulation or a process for developing a system of integrated -- I'm not sure what to call them, but basically guidelines for designating areas, it takes a while and you've only got eight months in this administration left. How do you make sure this announcement ever actually takes effect?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: Well, let me say, we've been working on this up to now during the Clinton administration. For example, with marine sanctuaries, we have gone from seven to 12 sanctuaries and we've almost quadrupled the budget. So we have a very good base to build from. And we have a very good sense of how we can put together the existing authorities. And we have actually been working on this idea about how we might have a comprehensive plan since the Oceans Conference in 1988. And I think what you're seeing now is a culmination of the President directing us to do something that was really in the works already, something that we think is very important and will lay the groundwork for the next administration, because this is something that's been very much of a bipartisan effort and very strongly supported.

Q As far as expanding the Hawaiian reserve, would that require legislative action, or is that something that can be done by administrative decree?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: What we've tried to do in all of the different areas that we work is to bring all the stakeholders on board and find a way put the park or the reserve or the sanctuary in place, using existing authorities. In some cases, it's legislation; sometimes it's federal action; in some cases it's federal and state action, working together. And I think you can find examples of all of those.

In the case of the northern Hawaiian Islands, there are a lot of different players. And one of the things that we've been doing is trying to make sure that we pull together all of the federal and state authorities to find a way that we can expand and enhance both the protection and the sustainable use of that very important resource.

Q But to physically expand the boundaries of the Federal Marine Reserve, or whatever the proper terminology is -- can you expand the boundaries of the reserve without legislative authority?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: Yes, you can. There are ways that you could do that. And what we are looking at now in this next 90 days are the ways that we can find to pull it together in such a way that are the parties feel comfortable that we have the best protection and we're doing what is necessary. There's a lot of tools in the federal, state and legislative toolbox that we can use. This is one of them; it's not the only one.

Q Is there any way to give a dollar estimate, a cost estimate of what doing -- you know, particularly trying to build a comprehensive plan and protect these marine areas, what it would cost? And the second question is, are you hearing any concerns from the commercial fishing industry or from the oil and gas, because obviously fishing and offshore drilling might be banned in some of these areas?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: Let me speak to the cost issue. One is, we can put together a plan with our existing budgets. That's something that we're going to do. The actual cost of putting in place and managing new areas, that costs more money. In fact, our marine sanctuaries have gone from a budget of about $7 million to this year's request to Congress of about $36 million. And I think we can see those kinds of requests increase. The President has a Lands Legacy Initiative this year; it's an increase over what we had last year. It's a very, very important one, and I think you'll continue to see those kinds of requests, because they're very important.

Now, I'll speak to the commercial fishing side. One of the things that the commercial fishermen have found, and we have supported, is that the use of protected areas is very, very helpful for nursery grounds for fisheries. Yellowtail and flounder and cod and scallops are growing back beautifully, now, on Georges Bank, as we have full protection in that area.

Now, that is probably an example of a temporary protected area. As the fish grow back, we may be able to allow some limited fishing in those areas. But we do know that protected areas are very valuable in fishing, and the fishery management councils, including the Western Pacific Management Council in Hawaii, really want to be part of the process, and has included this kind of tool in their area.

But let me let David talk to the offshore gas drilling.

DEPUTY SECRETARY HAYES: Sure. In terms of offshore oil and gas drilling, obviously we rely very heavily on certain oil and gas drilling in the United States. In particular in the Gulf of Mexico, our oil and gas production has actually increased substantially through this administration. We would not expect this executive order to have any impact on that activity.

And in fact, as I mentioned before, we're not changing any legal authorities here. All we are doing is providing an opportunity for a comprehensive look at various areas. So in offshore California and offshore North Carolina, offshore Florida where there have been many issues about offshore drilling, we expect those issues to continue to proceed under the current jurisdiction that now applies to those arenas. It's difficult to anticipate whether collecting areas under a new moniker of "marine protected areas" is going to have any impact. But certainly today, it does not -- on oil and gas drilling.

Q Can you tell us, like, as far as the Hawaiian reefs go, if someone wants to go up there right now and smash them up, or maybe take the reef out for some -- is that something that's precluded under the current rules, or is it pretty much open, fair game?

DEPUTY SECRETARY HAYES: Well, I will defer some to Jim on this, who is more of an expert. But that's exactly the problem; there is no specific protection, other than normal law of the sea, to protect areas outside the National Wildlife Refuge, in terms of the coral reefs. And since they are such a unique and valuable resource, that's why the President is asking us to take a good hard look -- can't we do something more?

It is a remarkable statistic that 70 percent of the entire nation's coral reef inventory is in that one area -- and we're including the Virgin Islands' important coral reef resources in that number as well.

Do you want to speak to that, Jim?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: Yes, just let me say that the President has a Coral Reef Task Force, and it has produced a coral reef plan. And in fact, the point of that plan was to identify how we could protect all of the corals that are currently not protected from anchoring or unwise use. And we also have the fishery management councils putting into place a coral reef fish management plan, so that we can make sure that we're not depleting the corals of the nursery fish that are important.

But coming out of that task force is a plan, eventually, we hope that -- I think it's by 2006? -- 2010, we'll have about 20 percent of the coral reef areas fully protected as ecological reserves, so that you can't go in there and do anything.

Q Given that you've said there's no change in legal authorities here, I want to make sure I understand. What is the main step you're taking today that's going to add any meaningful new protections that are not in place now?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: We have a fragmented approach right now to putting into place all of these different federal authorities that allow us to manage what we call these marine protected areas. And as we've said, the marine protected areas have different levels of protection. Some of them are fully protected, like ecological reserves. Some of them allow multi-use activities, such as certain marine sanctuaries.

But what we found is, there's inadequate coordination across the federal government about the things we're doing. There's inadequate scientific knowledge to allow us to say, what should we have in the year 2010 so that we really have protected represented areas of the estuary and the coast areas, so that we really have done this in the right and consistent way?

We have continual pressures from state communities that come and say, we would like to establish national parks, national wildlife refuges. We would like to see marine sanctuaries. We'd like to see marine estuarine research reserves. But we don't have a master plan that says, this is how this all fits together scientifically. This is the way we can afford to do it. And that's what we're trying to put together here.

Q Can you tell us about the EPA rules? I'm kind of interested -- I was under the impression that EPA didn't, under the Clean Water Act, have authority to regulate oceans. And -- this all sounds like it's going to be a runoff regulation, not a point-source regulation.

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: This is ocean discharges, and EPA does have that under the Clean Water Act. And they're going to go back and look at their permitting process for all of the ocean discharges that could have an impact in ocean areas, and make sure that those are fully scientifically based, and if necessary, to increase the protection as we look at what's required scientifically to protect the marine areas.

David, anything to add on that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY HAYES: Oh, just to add that EPA clearly does have jurisdiction. And it does require, for example, permits for oil and gas, offshore oil and gas, activities. The President is directing EPA to look hard at how it applies the Clean Water Act, to see if essentially there's anything else it should be doing under its authorities consistent with what we're about today, which is to take an overall look at marine resources.

So we're not -- I don't think the President is at all prejudging what EPA will do, but is asking them to look hard -- consonant with his direction to the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce -- to work together in a single way for the protection of the marine environment without regard to jurisdictional boundaries.

Q Mr. Baker, if I could ask you, there's a story today, I believe in the Wall Street Journal, about global warming and rising ocean levels and so forth, that basically suggests that there are a number of people who feel the federal government is being unduly alarmist in its analysis of global warming, and is only concentrating on adverse effects and not considering what could be salutary effects. Is there any validity to that criticism?

ADMINISTRATOR BAKER: We're in the process now of running this national assessment through a number of reviews. Currently it's going through agency review, and then it'll go through a public review in about a month. So there will be a lot of chance for input to make sure that it correctly reflects the science and public input.

This is something that Congress asked us to do when we established the Global Change program, about 10 years ago. They said that in 10 years we want to see a national assessment about what we know about the impacts of climate. We've gone out with a very, very heavily peer-reviewed process, and that's what we have. As you know, these processes now come back, they get another review. And that's where we are. I would expect to have some disagreements with the conclusions, but the final report will take into account what we have heard from all of the different reviewers. And then it will go out in about a month.

So at that point, I think, you can really look seriously at the conclusions. At the moment, you're looking at a report that's under review.

MR. SIEWERT: All right, thank you.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 10:45 P.M. EDT