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New Plan To Protect Fragile Water

May 26, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Clinton administration plans broad new protections for fragile stretches of sea, beach and reef _ a system of ocean preserves that could eventually mirror the system of protected forest and parks on land, White House officials said Thursday.

On Friday, President Clinton plans to direct federal agencies to come up with a quick plan for protecting Hawaiian coral reefs and a longer-term plan for addressing threats to other marine areas.

His plans do not require action by Congress, but could be undone by the next president.

``The president is saying that it’s time we do for our oceans what we’ve done on land _ establish a comprehensive conservation network that preserves these unique resources for future generations,″ said George Frampton, acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Millions of Americans live near a coastline, and pressures from development, pollution, fishing and oil and gas drilling are increasing yearly, environmental advocates said.

``We’ve set aside more than 200 million acres of wilderness and national parks to provide sanctuaries for wildlife and ourselves, but we have until now neglected our oceans,″ said John Adams, president of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.

Clinton wants a federal proposal in 90 days that would permanently protect reefs along a 1,200-mile string of islands in far northwest Hawaii. The coral reef system there represents 70 percent of all reefs in U.S. waters, the White House said.

The reefs, threatened by pollution and overfishing, support threatened sea turtles, endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other marine life found nowhere else, a White House fact sheet said. The White House said the reef conservation plan will be developed in cooperation with Hawaiian authorities and a regional fisheries management board.

Elsewhere, the Interior Department and the Commerce Department would draw up lists of threatened areas and weigh how best to protect them _ through total bans on fishing, drilling or other activities, or through milder measures. A new federal office would administer the process.

Clinton plans to do those things by executive order, or presidential prerogative. His announcement is to be part of a visit to the Assateague Island National Seashore off the Maryland and Virginia coasts.

Opposition to the plan is likely from commercial fishing interests and other businesses that use open ocean. But Sarah Chasis, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said some fishermen have become allies of protection plans in Florida and elsewhere.

``The protection means new spawning grounds, and that ultimately benefits fishing elsewhere,″ she said.

The federal government already has administrative power to impose protections on federal waters and coastline, but it is not often invoked. Those powers do not extend to private waters.

Only about 50 square miles of ocean is now afforded the kind of blanket protection from human activity accorded true wilderness areas on land, said Jack Sobel, a specialist in marine ecosystems and coral reefs at the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.

``We don’t think the executive order by itself is going to make sure that (proper) protection happens,″ Sobel said. ``But we do think a lot can get done in eight months,″ before Clinton leaves office. ``We think a committed administration can leave a lasting legacy in a relatively short time.″

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