Wilderness areas are supposed to be the most pristine, strictly protected lands in the country.
No vehicles of any sort. No construction. Just nature. Now an environmental group wants to bring that level of protection to the deep blue sea.
The Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental preservation group formerly known as the Center for Marine Conservation, wants the government to declare certain coastal waters as ocean wilderness sites. Starting with selected sites, the conservancy is asking the government agencies that manage pristine marine habitats to step up their protection.
That would mean no shipping or fishing in the water and no digging or drilling on the ocean floor within designated areas.
"The concept 'wilderness,' on land, represents the absolute highest level of protection that Americans have to describe their landscape," said Warner Chabot, the conservancy's vice president of regional operations. "What we're saying is that tradition and history and that type of vision should also apply to the ocean."
The group has suggested starting with six high-profile sites: the waters around Southern California's Channel Islands; Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay, both in Alaska; the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Fla., and the waters around the San Andres Archipelago, which are off the coast of Nicaragua, but managed by Colombia. These first six were hand-picked for being well-known and rich with sea life.
"These places are included because they epitomize the types of places that are needing and deserving of protection," said Gregory Helms, of the conservancy.
But don't expect to see "No fishing in wilderness zone" signs quite yet. The conservancy says its goal is not to rope off all of those coastal sites, which are each hundreds of square miles in size.
Instead, only small parcels of extra-sensitive marine habitats within each area would be considered wilderness areas, thus off limits to large boats and drilling.
Translated on land, it's not unlike the multiple levels of protection in national forests, where you can walk along one path and pass through all degrees of protected areas. Mining companies might be able to dig in one corner of the forest, while only hikers are allowed in another. And the term "wilderness," as defined by Congress in 1964, refers to the places that have the most stringent protections to retain "primeval character."
That's why the conservancy wants that same term applied to ocean waters, Chabot said - because people understand that "wilderness" means as natural as it gets.
"Basically, there's no easy way to describe how best to protect the ocean," Chabot said.
The five U.S. sites the conservancy has highlighted already have varying degrees of protection, managed by a host of local and state agencies and several are overseen by the National Marine Sanctuaries - a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
So to get wilderness labels on the books, the conservancy will begin lobbying those agencies to pinpoint the most fragile areas and then decide which potentially destructive activities to ban.
For instance, the conservancy wants to stop cruise ships from rumbling through Glacier Bay, oil exploration banned from the Channel Islands and fishing boats pushed farther away from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Fishermen say they need to be in the loop on any proposals that could lock them out of prime waters. Tom Gemmell, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, says commercial fishing groups are usually involved in the decisions on local levels. He views the conservancy's campaign as an attack on that process
"I think the main thing is that they need to talk to people and not come out and say what areas they think should be blocked off," he said. "That's not a good way to make friends."
He suggested more scientific studies in each of the national sanctuaries to pinpoint fragile spots with declining fish populations or unique habitats.
Other clean-ocean advocates say they support the underlying concept behind the Ocean Conservancy's wilderness campaign.
American Oceans, another environmental group, also has called for stepping-up protection around those ocean sites, particularly to block oil drilling.
"I wouldn't go as far as saying that the entire sanctuary boundaries should be free of fishing, but I think setting up more marine reserves inside sanctuaries should be a good idea," said Ted Morton, American Ocean's policy director.
Until this campaign, marine reserves have been the most-protected areas in the ocean. But starting with the six "crown jewels," as Helms describes them, the Ocean Conservancy is hoping to make waves and spark more aggressive protection.
"We're not picking favorites," Helms said. "And we're picking ocean wilderness, not for its benefits to humanity, but because it's the right thing to do."
Name and location square miles
Channel Islands, off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara, Calif. 1,252
Cordell Bank, off San Francisco Bay 526
Fagatele Bay, on American Samoa's largest island, Tutuila .25 (163 acres)
Florida Keys, the waters around most of the Keys' 1,700 islands 2,800
Flower Garden Banks, about 110 miles of Texas and Louisiana 42
Gray's Reef, off Georgia's Sapelo Island 58
Gulf of the Farallones, northwest of San Francisco Bay 1,255
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale spawning waters, along islands' coasts 1,218
Monitor, site of the USS Monitor wreck off North Carolina 1
Monterey Bay, central California Coast 400
Olympic Coast, off Washington's Olympic Peninsula coastline 3,300
Stellwagen Bank, at the mouth of the Massachusetts Bay 842
Thunder Bay, in the northwest part of Lake Huron near Michigan 448
Note: The waters of Glacier Bay, Alaska, are not a national sanctuary because they are part of the Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve.
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