Going, Going, Gone ... to the Goonies

After decades as a US Navy base, Midway Islands becomes a wildlife refuge, with some added tourists

Here at Sand Island, a white field stretches behind a stage filled with dignitaries as dozens of Laysan albatrosses cover the ground like a living snowdrift, tending chicks as large as bowling pins.

The birds, Midway's largest native constituency, pay little attention to the formal transfer of human control over their domain that is being enacted on a bright, windy spring day. Young adult birds not tied to domestic duties practice the courtship steps of their comical "gooneybird dance."

After 60 years of Navy tenancy, control of this remote US protectorate at the far northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago passed to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month. As Secretary of the Navy John Dalton put it, speaking loudly over the whistles and groans of seabirds, "We are trading guns for goonies."

The event signals a qualified victory for Midway's wildlife and its 15 species of sea birds and small population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Since being annexed by the US in 1867, the atoll has been a monument to the conflicting interests of wildlife and humans.

As Midway's importance as a defensive position and surveillance post rose during World War II, and again during the cold war, the ecosystem here suffered.

During those years the atoll's populations of sea birds, Pacific green sea turtles, and monk seals declined precipitously, with the seal count sinking close to zero. But as the tide of human activity ebbed in the last several years, the seal population, probably bolstered with a few immigrants from other northwestern islands, has climbed to around 40. (The world population, is around 1,300.)

The Fish and Wildlife Service established an overlay wildlife refuge at Midway in 1988. The agency was in a good position to offer aid in the extensive environmental cleanup that began when Midway Naval Air Base was closed in 1993, says Robert Shallenberger, new manager of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Midway's cleanup is scheduled for completion in June, but its wildlife is not out of the woods. Newly introduced plants, including fast-spreading ironwood, threaten to crowd out bird-nesting areas.

Without extensive environmental restoration work, the atoll's wildlife habitat will deteriorate rapidly. But the fledgling refuge is launched with no dowry from its cash-strapped parent, the National Wildlife Refuge System.

"Midway is a unique situation," notes Mr. Shallenberger, "It's one of the most remote places on earth." His agency had two options: let ironwoods, golden crown-beard, and other aggressive newly introduced plant species take over Midway's three small islands, or find a private-sector partner to keep the place running and give the Fish and Wildlife Service a shot at restoring the habitat.

Enter what seems like an unlikely candidate: Phoenix Air, a Georgia-based charter airline company whose primary business, according to its president Mark Thompson, is "special service flying for the military." Thompson formed Midway-Phoenix Corp. to take over maintenance of Midway in return for the opportunity to run the airport and develop small-scale tourism. Fishing and diving packages are already being offered.

Some members of the conservation community are not convinced that tourism will prove a compatible use of Midway's tiny, crowded ark of a wildlife refuge.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which has primary responsibility for the Hawaiian monk seal, has expressed some concern that the atoll's population will not have optimum conditions for recovery unless more of Midway's beautiful beaches are placed off-limits to humans. (Beaches on the two smallest islands and a portion of Sand Island are already restricted.)

Beach areas where monk seals can rear pups are essential. "Some species can tolerate disturbance even when they are rearing young," says Bud Antonelus, Marine Fisheries biologist who is head of the seal research and recovery program. "But this animal has close to zero tolerance."

But Mr. Thompson feels that further beach restrictions are unnecessary, and may jeopardize his company's ability to attract tourists to Midway. "The visitors who are coming out here are the kind who dust over their own footprints," Thompson says. "They are not going to be disturbing seals."

Shallenberger believes it is possible to design a public-use program here that will not negatively impact wildlife, one that can even become a model for other refuges. "The key is to rally against public uses that are inappropriate to wildlife refuges and support those that are truly supportive of conservation. In theory we can do that [at Midway]; whether it will actually work is still up in the air," he says.

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