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Marine monuments protect ocean, honor war sacrifices

21 May 2017

This piece originally appeared in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on May 21, 2017.


Waves crash on the shores of Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Battle of Midway was a major turning point in World War II’s Pacific theater. But the remote atoll where thousands died is now a delicate sanctuary for millions of seabirds, and a new battle is pitting preservation of its vaunted military history against the protection of its wildlife.

When President Donald Trump and Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull met recently, they commemorated the Battle of the Coral Sea’s 75th anniversary. Soon, in early June, we will remember the Battle of Midway, another pivotal point in World War II. The war is not the only link these battles share. They are also connected by conservation — historical conservation of past sacrifices, and ecological conservation of vital ocean ecosystems.

In May 1942, American and Japanese naval forces engaged in the world’s first all-carrier battle on the Coral Sea. Despite losing the USS Lexington, it was a victory as Japan was prevented from establishing an airbase in Papua New Guinea. This outcome would not have been possible without the USS Yorktown, which sustained damages significant enough for Japan to presume it was unavailable to defend Midway.

That assumption was wrong and Adm. Chester Nimitz recalled the Yorktown in preparation for an attack. After limping to Pearl Harbor and 72 hours of repairs, the carrier was deployed to help intercept the impending attack. The Battle of Midway is considered the turning point for the Pacific Theater in WWII but the price for the Yorktown was steep as it sunk on June 7, 1942.

The Lexington, Yorktown and many of the brave sailors and airmen who served aboard now rest on the Pacific Ocean seafloor. While the Coral Sea and waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are thousands of miles apart, they share this important history.

They are also presently connected as both include marine reserves created by previous governments and at risk under reviews by current leadership. Soon the Interior and Commerce Departments will decide the fate of many land and sea monuments. Our Pacific marine monuments remind us that preserving ecosystems also memorializes the sacrifices of war.

As a Cabinet member to a democratic and republican president, I am familiar with advising our commander-in-chief on important decisions that will shape our future. In 2000, while I served as commerce secretary, President Bill Clinton created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Six years later, while I was transportation secretary, President George W. Bush used executive authority to declare the same area Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. With the recent expansion by President Barack Obama, this monument now includes the Yorktown and other sacred remains from the Battle of Midway.

Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, seven presidents have protected this magnificent island chain and surrounding waters that are rich in biology and history. Each executive decisions addressed concerns of the day and built upon previous protections, resulting in Earth’s largest marine reserve and military memorial and a bipartisan legacy to be passed down to future generations.

A week before the Yorktown sank, my family — like many Japanese-Americans — was forced from our home in California and interned at Heart Mountain, Wyo. This confinement camp was similar to Honouliuli, which itself was preserved as a monument by the same presidential authority as those now under review.
The Antiquities Act has been used for over a century to protect some of America’s most important places, including those that evoke painful memories. Such designations can help ensure we avoid repeating past mistakes.

As a former presidential adviser, I urge Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to conclude their reviews by recommending no changes to the Antiquities Act or any national monument. Doing so will preserve uniquely American biological, cultural and historical resources, as well as the integrity of presidential authority.

Norman Y. Mineta, co-chariman of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, is from California and a former member of the U.S. House and co-founder of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. He served in the Cabinets of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.