Add Hawaii's ecology to the first lady's causes
Laura Bush happily fulfills the role of an environmental steward
First lady Laura Bush is probably best known for her literacy and education campaigns.
But her visit to Hawaii last week highlighted another of her longtime interests: conserving the natural, historical and cultural treasures of the country for future generations.
"I think I am already known for being a librarian and doing a lot of things with libraries, reading and children," Bush said during an interview with the Star-Bulletin on Thursday at Midway Atoll. "But on the other hand, I have always been very interested in our national parks. I hike in a national park every year," a tradition she started with a group of friends from her hometown of Midland, Texas, 20 years ago.
During her Thursday tour of Midway Atoll, Bush was an avid learner, asking questions that showed her familiarity with preserving the habitats of endangered species and ridding them of harmful, invasive plants and animals, said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist John Klavitter.
Bush seemed pleased when Klavitter told her that by hiring two new technicians, he expects to conquer one of the most invasive plants at Midway Atoll -- the golden crown beard, or verbesina -- within the decade.
And she was charmed when Klavitter showed her a healthy albatross chick peeking out from under the belly of an adult whose own egg hadn't hatched and who had accepted the orphaned chick.
"That's a great story," Bush said.
Bush looked just as comfortable in her khaki sport pants and floppy-brimmed sunhat on her Midway visit as she did the next day at a Washington Place ceremony wearing a cream-colored pantsuit, sparkly jewelry, and pikake and ilima leis.
When asked to plant some native bunch grass to improve surroundings for endangered Laysan ducks, Bush kneeled in the dirt and tapped the plant out of its pot with a gardener's expert touch.
From a starter group of ducks transplanted from Laysan Island, the Eastern Island group has grown to 101 in just a few years, Klavitter said.
"The whole seriousness of island ecology is even more obvious when you have a chance to come here, and see how fragile each of the islands are, the ecology of these islands, because of the threat of any either plant or animal invasive that would upset the entire ecology," Bush said.
"And these animals that are here, these birds -- the albatross" and others, said Bush, "are so dependent on these few islands for their nesting and for living. And we have to protect them."
Bush said she hopes her trip here will focus attention on the importance of preserving wild places .
"I hope people will study up about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, about this very important part of our country and the new monument here," she said.
"I also hope people will take from this that we need to really pay attention to how we recycle plastic, and to pay attention to everything that you consume at home that's plastic, and how you get rid of it, and just make sure it doesn't someday end up here on one of these islands, or on any other coast, or in the stomach of one of these marine animals."
Bush has supported the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that funnels private donations into national parks, and actively promoted President Bush's "Preserve America Initiative," which focuses on saving cultural and natural heritage sites.
An interview with first lady Laura Bush
Clipper House, Midway Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, on March 1, 2007
Star-Bulletin: Well, I was going to ask you if coming here was your idea, as a birder and naturalist?
Mrs. Laura Bush: Absolutely. It's a really huge thrill to have this opportunity.
I mean, this is what we were all calling, including our Secret Service, a
once-in-a-lifetime. But the fact is most people won't ever get to come
here, and the chance to be able to see these birds and see the islands, and
also to --
The whole seriousness of island ecology is even more obvious when you have a
chance to come here, and how fragile each of the islands are, the ecology of
these islands, because of the threat of any either plant or animal invasive
that would upset the entire ecology. And these animals that are here, these
birds -- the albatross -- are so dependent on these few islands for their
nesting and for living. And we have to protect them.
SB: What you think of the gooney birds, as they were nick-named ... the
LB: Oh, the Laysan albatross that we've seen. Yes, we've been
watching them all morning. We saw them when we came in last night. Every
once in a while as the plane turned around, the lights of the plane would
shine over onto the side of the runway and we could see them.
And then we've been staying here at the Midway House, watched out the window
from the minute the sun came up. They're really very fun to watch, but
precious, too. And the little chicks!
SB: Are you the kind of birder that keeps a list and checks off (birds you
have seen)? --
LB: Not really. I have -- when I've birded in different countries
or different places, I usually just keep my identification book and then
check them off in it. But I don't have a real 'life list,' like a lot of
SB: Are there any birds that will be a first time for you here?
LB: Sure. I mean, this one is, this albatross is. And there will
be a lot of them.
SB: I cover the environment in Hawaii, and I was thinking about how, in the
context of the national budget, this (the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National
Monument) is really a bargain.
LB: Absolutely. But also, this is very, very important -- (it's a)
huge amount of space. It doubles our acreage that's under -- maybe I should
say mileage that's under -- the Department of Interior or the Department of
Commerce. It is now the largest conservation area in the United States, and
the largest marine conservation area in the world. So it's huge.
But also there is a certain fragility to this sort of ecology that everyone
has to be aware of. And as far as the islands are from the rest of the
world, they're still affected. The plastic --
SB: You've seen the picture of what came out of one little bird? (Referring
to a photograph from the book Archipelago by Susan Middleton and David
Liittschwager that shows more than 11 ounces of plastic debris removed from
the stomach of one young albatross after it died.)
LB: That's one bird from Susan Middleton's book. But we'll see, I
know today, when we travel around, plastic that's washed up from everywhere.
I mean, it's not from people intentionally dropping things -- but people do
need to know that if you drop your cigarette lighter in the gutter, it's
likely to wash out and finally end up in an ocean, and in this case, end up
in the stomach of a baby chick albatross. And I know people aren't that
aware of this, and I think if they were aware, they'd be a little bit more
SB: Do you think that's part of your mission, or your role, by coming here
and shining a light on this?
LB: Absolutely. Absolutely, letting people know about it. We're
staying with the superintendent of the island, and they received a bottle,
(a) message in a bottle a couple of years ago, sent by a class in Oregon.
It took about three years for it to show up here.
And so when they went, when they took a break and went back on the mainland,
they went to Oregon and met with the class -- well, not the class, because
the class had gone on and was now in the 8th grade, or something -- but they
met with the 5th graders or the 4th graders who knew about these bottles.
And actually, the entire class had put bottles in the ocean. One father of
one of the classmates was a fisherman and he'd taken them out off the coast
a little bit, of Oregon, and dropped them.
And one was found here and one was found in the Philippines. It's amazing
that they would be -- about two or three years later. But what it does show
is that what comes off our west coast of the mainland can end up here. And
people really need to be aware of how small our world is, and how many
things we have that are not biodegradable, and that float.
All these plastics that float on the top of the water, so that albatrosses
eat them, think they're squid, and then feed their babies this plastic.
SB: Another intriguing thing that's hard to get a grip on is how fragile
these islands are from sea level rise. And I had it pointed out to me by
several scientists, even if you don't think people are causing global
warming, the trend is that it's getting warmer and the sea is rising. And
for someplace like this, it could make a big difference. Like you said,
they (seabirds) need the land to nest on.
LB: Sure, absolutely.
SB: Do you think -- have you, with your teacher's mind, thought of any ways
to connect -- help people connect their actions to the possibility that
people are affecting global warming, and that something like this (the
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) could actually disappear?
LB: Well, I think whether you think people are causing global
warming, or it's just a natural warming that happens, it doesn't matter.
What does matter is what we do as humans -- how much energy we use, how much
greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere.
If it helps with global warming, that's great. If it doesn't make any
difference, it's also really very important for our world to reduce the
pollution that we cause because of our huge, huge energy use. -- our use of
fossil fuels, all the ways we use energy, which then pollutes the
And then the way we use things like toys -- I mean, all the things that wash
up here that are not biodegradable that will be here forever.
There are great programs that NOAA the National Atmospheric and Oceanic
Administration) has and Fish and Wildlife Service, for people to come
volunteer. It's very, very difficult to get here, as you know.
But there are volunteer programs for people to come clean up. Even when you
clean up all the plastic, or the divers cut the nets, it's still here. You
still have to do something with it.
You either have to ship it off to a landfill somewhere else, or to an
incinerator somewhere and that's expensive. This is a long way away to have
a barge come up to ship off tons -- literally, tons -- of net and plastic.
It is a really major expense, besides being very difficult to manage.
SB: What do you most hope to see today, or what are you kind of expecting,
maybe from your preview with Jean-Michel Cousteau's film (Voyage to Kure),
books you've read?
LB: Well, just to get to see these chicks and to be here at the time
of year when they're hatching and out here on their nest is a huge thrill.
But looking over here at how beautiful the water is and the color of it in
these lagoons, and knowing how many brilliant species of fish are here is
really exciting. I hope I get to see those.
I know I'm going to get to see some monk seals.
SB: Do you have thoughts yet on whether you think it would be a good idea if
there is small eco-tourism here? Does that help -- is letting a few people
get a glimpse a good thing or, as some say, should everybody stay away and
just let it take care of itself?
LB: Well, it's so remote, I guess there never would be -- I hope
there never would be any large amount of tourism here.
I think it's interesting for scientists and researchers to be able to come
here and to really learn how -- what we can do to manage, conserve and to
protect this area in the best way we possibly can.
And so I think it's important for some people to come here. I hope that it
won't be a lot of tourism, for sure, and I don't think there will be. I
mean, I think that's the point. The point of this being declared a monument
is a way to protect it -- a national monument.
SB: There are estimated 7,000 species here (in the Northwestern Hawaiian
Islands), and that's probably on the low side. And they know that of the
ones they know of, that a quarter of them are found nowhere else. There's
the concept of "we don't know if some algae that's out here and only here is
a cure for cancer, or something". And then just the concept of preserving
diversity --what's that worth to America?
LB: Well, it's priceless to our country, and not in an economic
sense, but in just a real sacred, sort of spiritual sense, I guess.
In a way that makes it even more important for us as Americans to do
whatever we can to protect all of this wildlife and these beautiful islands,
and to keep them as pristine as possible.
I think that we can let people know about it. For instance, Susan
Middleton's book -- last night, we watched a DVD that was about how she shot
the photographs of her book, and Regan, my friend (who was part of Mrs.
Bush's group on the island), said, "You know, this ought to be on public
television for people to be able to see it and to know what's here."
The "Voyage to Kure," the Jean-Michel Cousteau film, I think that's another
very important film to get -- for people to see, to go on television on some
different channels to make sure people have a chance to see it.
And then CNN is here. CNN will be running a story on this, and I think
You know, it's very hard to really get the word out because it is so -- the
place is so remote. People in Hawaii are very aware of it, and I think
people in Hawaii can let people of the rest of the world know about it.
All of Hawaii are islands, and they all face the fragility that islands --
that an island environment and ecology -- face, because you can't stand an
invasive plant or animal.
One of these islands had rabbits that were brought in. And then they ate
all the vegetation. And finally, they were able to control them and then
replant. But we -- people, humans -- have to be aware of how any action can
affect the ecology of these islands and of wherever we live.
SB: The Navy has cleaned up a lot of the debris and stuff that they had
here from years of occupation. The one thing that the American Bird
Conservancy kind of harps on is, they wish the Fish and Wildlife Service
would go ahead and spend the estimated $6 million to clean up the lead paint
chips and get that over with.
LB: Yes, that really needs to be done. Absolutely. And I think
people are working on it in the White House, as well, to make sure it's
done. I got letters from friends who are major bird watchers and
naturalists, when they knew I was going to come on this trip, about that
specifically. Because that's something that can be done, and we can get
behind it and needs to be done.
SB: By my calculation, it will take them 30 years at the rate they're doing
LB: I think there's a push to make a real effort to get it over
with, especially now that it's been proclaimed a monument.
SB: What about the historic sites, as well? Again, since not that many
people come out here, is it still important to preserve the spot where the
bombs hit on Midway? (Midway lost half a hangar to Japanese bombing and a
number of buildings were damaged. The history-making Battle of Midway, June
3-7, 1942, was mostly fought at sea and in the air nearby.)
LB: I think it's a very, very interesting part of our history. I
think there's a way for it to be written up so that people would know about
it. That's what people think of Midway. When you say you're going to
Midway, they don't even think of it as an outer Northwestern Hawaiian
island. They think of it as just Midway, just someplace that was out here
that was a staging ground for the war in the Pacific in World War II.
SB: Are you going to see any sites today that they actually set aside money
LB: Do you know, Jim? (Refers question to Jim Connaughton, head of
the President's Council on Environmental Quality.)
Mr. Connaughton: Yes, there's ongoing plans ... keeping some, continuing to
demolish others, there's going to be a strong historical preservation aspect
(for some) buildings.
And they were going to try to link it back to Hawaii, so people can actually
get sort of remote access to what's happening here without having to come
out here. So that's one of the longer-term visions, as well.
And we're trying to get preservationists involved ... to get behind making
some of these structures last, but also to have a function, a functional
LB: Functional use as a place for researchers and scientists.
Mr. Connaughton: For researchers. Bring groups of volunteers and students
out here, if they come out for a period of time -- a good, sunny space.
There's lots of creative thinking underway right now on having a little more
comprehensive plan for keeping the human footprint very small.
SB: I was going to ask you if you have any advice for the two departments,
in how they can co-manage? (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is
part of the Department of the Interior, and the National Atmospheric and
Oceanic Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce, are
federal co-managers of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, along
with the state of Hawaii.)
LB: We say that this -- the whole national monument itself is an
example of cooperative collaboration between the state of Hawaii, between
the federal government and then obviously between two of the departments --
Cabinet-level departments. So we'll see. It should be an example for other
cooperation between other groups.
SB: You don't have any words of advice for them --
LB: Just to get along as well as you can. (Laughter.) They've over
there sitting together. (Referring to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne
and Deputy Commerce Secretary David Sampson, who were visiting Midway with
Mr. Sampson: We rarely fight.
LB: They actually rarely speak. (Laughter.) Kidding. It is a very
-- actually, it's a problem in government -- maybe you don't call it a
problem, maybe you call it an opportunity.
But it happens everywhere where more than one agency is involved in a
million things that the government does. And in some ways, I think it's
really good because it keeps more than one group paying attention to what's
But it does require special cooperation, and there's no doubt about it. ...
And so they're willing to work together to get the best.
SB: As you look, not just right tomorrow, but as you come to the end of
your time as First Lady, what do you hope to most be known for in your role
as First Lady?
LB: I think I am already known for being a librarian and doing a lot
of things with libraries -- reading and children. That's been my whole
interest my whole life.
But on the other hand, I have always been very interested in our national
parks. I hike in a national park every year. I did an event, two events
yesterday (Feb. 28) in Los Angeles that had to do with our national parks,
one in a school where park rangers come to work with a gifted and talented
school, a magnet school.
So I hope that this will be -- this sort of interest in protecting our
environment -- will be something that I'm known for.