A remote, uninhabited Pacific island group - once targeted by the US as a potential nuclear waste dump and reportedly sought after by Microsoft's Bill Gates - is about to become a landmark nature preserve.
The purchase of Palmyra Atoll by the Nature Conservancy, for a total cost of about $37 million, represents one of the most expensive acquisitions ever made by a conservation group. It's also indicative of the growing economic muscle of private environmental organizations.
The appeal of Palmyra Atoll, a picturesque ring of 52 sandy islands and pristine coral reefs 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, lies in its scale and ecological uniqueness.
"Palmyra represents the most important unprotected marine-wilderness area left in the US tropics," says Jim Maragos, a coral reef biologist with the Honolulu office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "With proper management, it will be the flagship coral reef in the Pacific for scientific research."
Palmyra is one of the only places in the Pacific that has substantial freshwater resources but was never permanently settled by humans. While other Pacific atolls were planted with
coconuts and fruit trees, Palmyra's tiny islands are covered in old-growth tropical forests. Millions of seabirds nest on the coral islands, including the world's second-largest colony, red-footed boobies. More than 130 hard-coral species are found on its reefs, five times as many as in the Florida Keys. The islets, covering 8,320 acres, sit on an unusual equatorial sea current that bring extra nutrients.
"Nowhere else in US waters can you find a healthy ecosystem with the biological diversity that Palmyra has," says Nature Conservancy vice president Nancy MacKinnon, who helped negotiate the agreement. "Here we'll actually be able to protect and study an entire ecosystem that's still in pristine condition."
The Nature Conservancy, based in Arlington, Va., will purchase the atoll from the Fullard-Leo family of Honolulu for substantially less than its market price of $47 million. Ms. MacKinnon said the purchase price remains secret, but that the total cost to the Conservancy will be $37 million, which includes setting up a small endowment, infrastructure improvements, and other costs.
Buoyed by the strong economy and growing environmental awareness, The Nature Conservancy raised nearly $290 million in private donations in 1998, making it the 14th largest charity in the country - according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington.
"For an environmental group that's really amazing," says Chronicle editor Stacy Palmer. "Its only in recent years that environmental groups have had that kind of power" because they've become as sophisticated at fund-raising as colleges and foundations.
The Conservancy's Palmyra purchase follows its acquisition of 185,000 acres of Maine forest in 1998 for around $35 million. Both are part of the organization's $1 billion Last Great Places campaign, which seeks to protect natural diversity in 200 priority locations in the Americas and Asia. The group has raised $460 million of that over the past 20 months, according to its director of development, David Whitehead. In the past 10 years, Nature Conservancy has preserved more than 10 million acres in the US and Canada.
Other thriving conservation groups include Ducks Unlimited, which raised $118 million in 1999, the largest amount in the group's 62-year history. That helped the Memphis-based group protect or restore 300,000 acres of wildlife habitat last year.
The Conservancy purchase insures that Palmyra won't become a nuclear waste facility. That idea - which included filling in much of the lagoon with cement to create a giant storage cave - was first proposed during the Carter administration, but was unpopular with Pacific nations and Hawaiian congressmen.
"It was an incredibly stupid idea," says Dr. Maragos, who first went to Palmyra as part of a classified mission to assess the project's feasibility. "Pacific islands are salty oceanic environments that are frequently battered by storms and typhoons and totally ill-suited for these purposes."
The idea resurfaced in 1996, when a private company lobbied Congress to consider a plan to store high-level US and Russian nuclear waste on the island. The plan was shot down after angry criticism from the nearby Kiribati and the Marshall Islands - two Pacific nations whose territory was used for Allied atomic tests.
The Palmyra project still faces a number of obstacles. Conservancy officials would like to sell partial ownership to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with which they would co-manage the atoll. A Fish and Wildlife service spokesman said the cooperating with the Conservancy at Palmyra was "a priority" for the organization. But it's not clear if Congress will appropriate the funds.
Another problem: Nobody seems to know if the Conservancy's purchase includes the more than 15,500 acres of lagoon and underwater reefs surrounding the islands. Peter Savio, the Honolulu realtor who brokered the deal, says these underwater assets are included in the deed, which was drawn up in accordance with the laws and customs of the old Kingdom of Hawaii.
But the Commerce and Interior departments are locked in a bitter behind-the-scenes turf battle over which of them has jurisdiction over waters surrounding remote US insular territories. Asked about undersea ownership, one government official said he couldn't comment for fear of "stirring up a hornet's nest."
The Fullard-Leo family has owned Palmyra since 1922, but never developed it. During World War II 6,000 US troops were based on the atoll. One rundown airfield remains, along with a huge causeway that cuts straight through a lagoon to link two islands. The atoll has been uninhabited since 1951.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society