Little hope seen for
salvaging Midway access

A Georgia contractor and a federal agency
remain at odds over the isle's management

By Jeffrey McMurray
Associated Press

WASHINGTON >> Another Battle of Midway, this one between a Georgia company and a federal agency, appears certain to cloud the 60th anniversary of the World War II confrontation that turned around U.S. fortunes in the Pacific.

Many observers hoped the upcoming June anniversary would inspire Midway Phoenix Corp. and the Fish and Wildlife Service to mend their differences over management of the island. Even Congress has tried to intervene, with little success.

However, the two sides appear determined to part paths on May 1, and earlier this month they officially severed their 5 1/2-year-old contract. Now the key Coast Guard refueling base and one of few emergency landing spots for commercial airliners between the United States and Japan has been thrown into a state of limbo.

"It is my understanding they have reached an irreconcilable difference," said Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who has tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise.

Since signing a government contract in 1996, the Cartersville company has inhabited Sand Island -- the largest of the chain 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. It built a resort around the former Navy base and, with about 150 employees, has operated the airfield, harbor and power plant -- all critical for the Coast Guard.

But that has all changed. Public access to the island has already been cut off, and the company plans to abandon the other services May 1, due to some Fish and Wildlife regulations it claims are burdensome.

"We're not accepting any transient airplanes for fuel because Fish and Wildlife won't let us refuel," said Bob Tracey, spokesman for Midway Phoenix Corp. "We're out of the hotel business, and we've closed the restaurants. We're leaving completely."

Tracey says the company has lost $15 million on the island, primarily because of federal regulations. The agency constantly restricted public access and required the shortening of street signs and removal of shade trees not native to the soil, he said.

He contends Fish and Wildlife officers have also abused an agreement requiring Midway Phoenix to pay their salaries and fly them and their families back and forth to Honolulu.

"They portray themselves as altar boys, but there are some pretty serious charges here," said James D'Angelo, president of the International Midway Memorial Foundation.

D'Angelo has been trying to get Congress to take the unusual step of removing the Fish and Wildlife Service from the island and replacing it with the parks department. A few lawmakers have signed on, but with the May 1 deadline approaching, that goal has been elusive.

"That would be a highly unusual approach, but all options are being considered," said Paul Cardus, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D, Hawaii).

The agency has defended its practices, claiming that in addition to being a historic battle site, Midway Atoll is a National Wildlife Refuge, home to nearly 1 million Laysan albatrosses, 14 other species of migratory seabirds and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. There are also various other historic buildings and sites not related to World War II, said FWS spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield.

"We operate under the same federal laws the federal park service does, and we take those responsibilities very seriously," Maxfield said.

Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery says the regulations should not have come as a surprise to Midway Phoenix.

"The restrictions they're complaining about were clearly spelled out in the cooperative agreement," he said.

Vickery insists the real issue was a refusal by Midway Phoenix to reimburse the government for $1.5 million in fuel it borrowed and then sold. That debt has now been forgiven under the severance agreement, Maxfield said.

With irreconcilable differences now apparent, the federal government is planning to maintain the island on its own for a while, then open it up to bids from outside companies. Tracey predicts there won't be any takers, and even if there are, he contends they won't operate the island at the level Midway Phoenix does.

"They're not in the guest business," Tracey said of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "When they run a refuge, they put a fence around it, and you can't come in. When the heat dies down, it'll all just fade away, and everybody will forget about Midway. And that's what I think they want."

E-mail to City Desk


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin