How paradise lost a radical public-private venture

Not so long ago, this remote outpost in the Pacific was the scene of a promising experiment in the blending of conservation and tourism in wildlife refuges.

Some tourists flew to Midway Atoll for the world-class fishing. Others flocked here to achieve an odorous but exhilarating proximity to some of the word's largest seabird colonies. Still more visitors came to snorkel in clear-bottom lagoons with sea turtles, spinner dolphins, and giant manta rays. And World War II buffs made the long journey to walk the runway from which B-17s took off to bomb the Japanese fleet in 1942.

But earlier in the month, on the 60th anniversary of that battle, dignitaries and veterans arrived to an island that has been left largely to the gooney birds.

Instead of a model experiment, the Midway National Wildlife Refuge is, for now, more of a model of the kinds of problems that can go wrong in managing wildlands through a public-private partnership.

The public visitation program at the refuge has been shut down since January, when the private contractor that ran a small resort here left. The company said the venture was unprofitable, thanks to a "total lack of flexibility" on the part of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. The agency, in turn, offers similar criticisms of its former partner.

The debacle, while in some ways unique to Midway, reflects wider questions about whether conservation and public use of refuge lands are mutually exclusive goals.

The cash-strapped Wildlife Service, which manages 95 million acres of federal land on a budget not much larger than the price of one stealth bomber, has been under pressure since the Reagan administration to bolster its revenues using private partnerships. The idea is that providing recreational opportunities on refuge lands can bring in money for conservation work while still ostensibly upholding its mandate: "Wildlife First." As the Bush administration seeks to accelerate such partnerships, Midway shows the kind of tricky compromises or outright clashes of values that can result.

The wildlife refuge here was created five years ago. The US Navy left behind numerous deteriorating historic buildings, fast-spreading weeds and trees that threatened to crowd out bird-nesting areas, and an endangered population of monk seals.

The cooperative agreement the Wildlife Service signed with Midway-Phoenix Corp. for an ecotourist resort was hailed as a promising model for partnerships on refuge lands. But the company and the agency found themselves in a pitched battle.

Mark Thompson, who heads Midway-Phoenix's parent firm, sank a million dollars into a French restaurant that overlooks Midway's beaches, started lobbying that beaches closed to protect seal-pupping habitat be reopened, and asked the Wildlife Service to allow activities that ranged from kayaking to shark feeding.

If some of these efforts seemed like too much for conservationists, the Wildlife Service came under fire for not being visitor-friendly.

"Access to Midway by the public was doomed to failure from the beginning," says James D'Angelo, president of the International Midway Memorial Foundation (IMMF), an organization made up largely of war veterans. The Wildlife Service, he says, is "unable to balance the multifunctional purpose of Midway" as both a refuge and a national memorial. Dr. D'Angelo points, as examples, to the removal of "scenic" ironwood trees in order to open areas for bird habitat, and the agency's refusal to erect a flagpole at the Battle of Midway memorial because it would be an "airstrike hazard to birds."

The IMMF wants to see a new federal agency take over here. But Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson, who attended the June 5 ceremony, says there is "no inherent conflict" between conservation goals and public use of refuge lands.

The Wildlife Service is seeking a new private partner. But, as veterans laid wreaths on the Midway memorial, stepping around Laysan albatrosses feeding fuzzy chicks, it was clear that at tiny, fragile Midway, there is not very much room to maneuver.

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