George W. Bush, hardly a tree-hugger, nonetheless left at least one impressive environmental legacy: protecting pristine ocean. He holds the presidential record for creating the most marine monuments, among them the 87,000-square-mile Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument he created in 2009. Now, President Barack Obama is looking to top Bush's legacy.
Obama on Tuesday announced that the size of that Pacific monument would be increased nine-fold, to nearly 782,000 square miles—enough to double the area of ocean that’s fully protected from fishing and energy exploration. “Like Presidents Clinton and Bush before me I am going to use my authority as president to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes, just like we do for mountains and rivers and forests,” Obama told the State Department’s Our Oceans summit.
Republicans claim Obama is abusing his executive powers. “It’s another example of this imperial presidency,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings told the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin. “If there are marine sanctuaries that should be put in place, that should go through Congress.” However, the Antiquities Act of 1906 lets the president protect marine monuments without congressional approval. Bush used that authority on four occasions during his administration, including the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
Obama will also issue executive actions to fight illegal fishing and will accept public nominations for new sanctuaries in the oceans and Great Lakes. Still, only a little over 3 percent of U.S. territorial waters are protected as marine reserves, with most of the rest open to fishing and other uses. But other countries are looking to create similar sanctuaries. At the U.S. State Department’s oceans summit this week, the small island nation of Kiribati announced it would ban commercial fishing with a marine park that's roughly the size of California.