When the Obama administration said last week it would expand ocean protections in the south-central Pacific, few, perhaps, were more ecstatic than Redmond-based marine biologist Elliott Norse.
Few have done more behind the scenes to make such ocean conservation possible.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened,” Norse said a few days after Obama’s announcement. “I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.”
In recent weeks, Norse — founder of a small Northwest nonprofit called the Marine Conservation Institute — helped get more than 350 top ocean scientists to sign a letter urging President Obama to protect more of the sea from fishing and development, according to Monica Medina, senior director of international ocean policy for the National Geographic Society, and a former deputy undersecretary for oceans in the Obama administration.
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Norse and others also quickly drafted a report detailing the benefits Obama administration officials will consider in expanding protections around seven remote islands and atolls southwest of Hawaii that initially were preserved by President George W. Bush.
But, most important, it was Norse — a left-leaning biologist who’d worked in the Carter administration — who initially helped focus Bush a decade ago on protecting still-pristine areas of the tropical Pacific.
“We knew very early on that we wanted to make consequential conservation initiatives in the broader marine environment — it was a personal passion for the president and for the first lady,” James Connaughton, former head of the Bush administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, said in an interview last week.
Norse’s team “was instrumental in helping identify the opportunity and the appropriate scope of ocean protections,” Connaughton said. “They were very significant, very constructive partners.”
Norse’s work helped convince Bush to establish the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006, which limited or prohibited fishing across nearly 140,000 square miles of shoals and atolls northwest of Hawaii — more area than all U.S. national parks combined. Then later, Norse was among a small group who convinced Bush to establish in 2009 the 86,000-square-mile Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument near Johnston, Wake, and Palmyra atolls — an area of healthy coral reefs home to increasingly rare giant clams, sharks, dolphins, wrasses, seabirds and turtles.
This area is the one President Obama last week said he plans to expand.
“Like President Clinton and Bush before me, I’m 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 said Tuesday in video remarks before a State Department conference that sought ways to combat ocean pollution, overfishing, souring seas and warming waters.
Many media reports suggested Obama had already committed to increasing the monument to nearly 782,000 square miles — a 10-fold expansion that would extend protections to the 200-mile boundary of waters controlled by the United States. Norse and experts at National Geographic say such a move would double the amount of ocean currently protected around the globe.
But White House officials insist the president merely stated his intention to start a process of determining how — and how much — more of that area he should ultimately protect.
“Before making decisions about the geographic scope and details of future marine protections, we will consider the input of fishermen, scientists, conservation experts, elected officials, and other stakeholders,” states an administration fact sheet about the president’s announcement.
Regardless, the move remains a coup for ocean conservationists and for Norse in particular.
Bigger organizations with louder voices have pushed for changes to rules governing fishing or ocean mineral exploration. But Norse — whose organization employs about a dozen people and has an annual budget of less than $2 million — has spent 20 years quietly building relationships and trying to convince power brokers that setting aside giant swaths of sea can solve many problems permanently and all at once.
Norse had worked in President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality in the 1970s and at the Environmental Protection Agency. He wrote a book about the Northwest’s ancient Douglas fir forests during the peak of the timber wars over spotted owls and logging.
But when he founded the marine institute in 1996, he realized there was no real central place where scientists joined to talk about major threats to the sea. Nor were there places proposing solutions like the Northwest Forest Plan had done for the forests — such as protecting many threatened ocean species by protecting the place they call home.
“In picking every smart person’s brain I could find, what I came to realize is that there was an empty niche — there really was no science of marine conservation biology,” Norse said. “I felt that to move it forward, we had to kick-start a new science that made it cool.”
He hosted international seminars and co-wrote a popular textbook about the interconnectedness of life in the ocean, and about the ways threats to marine habitat harmed more species than once thought.
From the outset he wanted his organization to be about science, rather than partisanship, and encouraged influential Republicans to serve on his board. One of those, former Pennsylvania Congressman James Greenwood, happened to have a relationship with President Bush.
The Bush call
Between his own history with White House environmental policy and Greenwood’s connection to Bush, Norse was among a select few ocean advocates who secured an audience with White House officials in the summer of 2005. The groups urged the Bush administration to ban fishing in important areas around Hawaii that few people actually used.
If Bush could find a way to guarantee those places weren’t ruined by future generations, Norse said, marine scientists would be full-throated in their praise.
Norse, marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Greenwood and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau met Bush in the White House, and, “He indicated clearly that he wanted this to happen.”
“We were giving President Bush an opportunity to do something really big for the environment at a very low cost to him,” Norse said. “It’s not that he was going to have a large number of people bashing down his door and calling him names.”
Once other groups got the GOP governor of Hawaii on board, Bush made the announcement.
“That they had accepted the meeting from known environmentalists was impressive to me,” Norse said. “There are a lot of people with very strong feelings about President Bush, but this is something he did that unquestionably was visionary.”
Norse and his institute maintained a “low-level, ongoing dialogue” with the White House until new research showed that the areas around Johnston Atoll and the other half-dozen islands and shoals were really undamaged.
“We provided the Bush administration with the materials that showed that if we acted intelligently we could protect them for all time,” Norse said of the second monument.
Norse, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Conservation International had maintained relationships with Connaughton at the Council on Environmental Quality and once again helped persuade them to create a marine monument.
“Those four groups put a lot of their own effort in and provided the research,” Connaughton recalled.
As Obama sets out to define how much more he will add to what Bush did, the battles are likely to be more ferocious. Already, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, has cast it as another sign of Obama overreaching — even though the administration says it has not decided what it plans to do.
But with a number of the important species that live in the current monument still relying for food on areas outside it, Norse said Obama has an opportunity to create “the greatest ocean legacy in history.”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @craigawelch