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By Paula Wolfson
Washington
06 January 2009 

President George W. Bush is honored by the military in an emotional farewell ceremony at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia, 6 Jan. 2009
President George W. Bush, 6 Jan. 2009
U.S. President George Bush is launching one of the biggest conservation efforts in the world. He is designating large tracts of the Pacific as national monuments - meaning they are protected from commercial fishing, mining and other uses.

With just two weeks left in office, the president has taken action to safeguard parts of three remote Pacific island chains that are U.S. possessions.

All will be designated as marine national monuments under provisions of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which is used to protect scientific and historical sites. 

"The monuments will prohibit resource destruction or extraction, waste dumping and commercial fishing," President Bush said.

President Bush says the goal is to keep these delicate ecosystems intact, while gradually opening them up to scientific research and recreation. 

"For sea birds and marine life, they will be sanctuaries to grow and thrive. For scientists, they will be places to expand the frontiers of discovery. And for the American people they will be places that honor our duty to be good stewards of the Almighty's creation," he said.

Freedom of the seas will be unaffected in the three monument sites, as will U.S. military operations. President Bush says the military will also keep watch out for those who violate restrictions in the protected areas.

In this photo released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, pink corals are seen on the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific in this photo, date unknown
In this photo released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, pink corals are seen on the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific in this photo, date unknown
White House officials say these locations are among the last pristine marine areas left on Earth. The three new marine monuments together equal an area roughly the size of Spain and are made up islands, reefs, atolls and underwater mountain ranges that are home to countless species.

President Bush notes the protected zones include parts of the Mariana Trench - the world's deepest canyon. 

"This unique geological region is five times longer than the Grand Canyon. It is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. It supports life in some of the harshest conditions imaginable," he said.

Aides to the president say Mr. Bush has protected more of the marine environment than any of his predecessors. And some environmentalists agree he has ushered in a new era of ocean conservation in the United States.

But others argue his efforts to protect the oceans must be weighed against his stands on other environmental issues, such as climate change and oil drilling on land.

"The Bush presidency will be seen as a dark period for environmental issues. Really across the board, whether it be domestic regulations, but certainly the global issue of climate change, President Bush sought to take the country backward," said Chris Flavin, Director of the Worldwatch Institute.

But Bush administration officials say that is just not so, that the 43rd president of the United States can be proud of his efforts to protect the air, seas and land.

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