Monday, February 4, 2002

Midway Isle
pullout hits
Coast Guard, airlines

Midway Phoenix will close its
ecotourism resort in March

By Mitch Stacy
Associated Press

ATLANTA >> A key U.S. Coast Guard refueling base and one of the few emergency landing spots for commercial airliners in the North Pacific could be put in jeopardy in March when a Georgia-based corporation abandons the historic Midway Islands.

Midway Phoenix Corp. says it will close its ecotourism resort on the three-island atoll in early March, citing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services restrictions that make it too difficult to be profitable.

Cartersville-based Midway Phoenix has inhabited Sand Island -- the largest of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, 1,200 miles from Honolulu -- under a federal government contract since 1996, building a resort around the former Navy base and operating the airfield, harbor and power plant.

When the company's 150 employees leave the island, those operations will cease, said Bob Tracey, the company's executive vice president.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield said the agency is scrambling to see if it can find a way "to maintain some kind of continuity of operations -- there may be some sort of a short-term arrangement with someone."

No details were available.

It is a situation that concerns the Coast Guard, which depends on the island as a refueling stop during law enforcement and rescue operations.

"If I don't have Midway, that area gets a little bit bigger," said Capt. Steven Newell, the Coast Guard's chief of the expansive North Pacific district.

Also, some commercial air routes between the United States and Asia would likely have to be changed. A Federal Aviation Administration rule requires that two-engine jets stay within 1,000 miles of an emergency landing spot in case they lose an engine.

Midway served as that location for many trans-Pacific routes, and Boeing, the leading maker of two-engine commercial jets, even paid to help maintain the airfield on the island, Newell said.

The Navy controlled the islands for nearly a century, building a key landing strip there before World War II. In June 1942, just north of Midway, U.S. forces defeated the Japanese in what many experts believe was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Midway Phoenix has lost at least $15 million on the island, Tracey said. Strict Fish and Wildlife Service restrictions on where visitors can go and what they are allowed to do have made it difficult to operate as advertised, he said.

"With this level of extremism with Fish and Wildlife, it's difficult to make a profit out there under that regime," Tracey said. "We're exhausted fighting the war."

The situation is especially hard to take, he said, because under the government contract, Midway Phoenix pays the salaries of Fish and Wildlife officers who maintain the refuge and also flies them and their families back and forth to Honolulu.

Maxfield makes no apologies, but she said the agency has tried to work with Midway Phoenix during the 5 1/2 years it has been partnered with the company on the islands.

"It's a national wildlife refuge, and we are required by law to put wildlife first," Maxfield said. "That has some pretty strict requirements with it that didn't always make Midway Phoenix happy."

The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has nesting grounds for nearly 1 million Laysan albatrosses, as well as 14 other species of migratory seabirds and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

Maxfield said she has seen nothing in writing from Midway Phoenix yet terminating the agreement, but the agency has begun to talk about what to do next.

"We just don't know at this point," she said. "We will maintain a presence on the island, we do know that."

Newell said it is important the government find someone to take over the island.

"The strategic value of Midway is not questioned," he said. "There's a lot of people who need to use it."

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