Bush’s bid for a blue legacy

Just when you think you’ve seen it all. President Bush is on the brink of launching one of the most significant conservation programs in American history. According to an NPR report, the White House has been holding closed-door planning sessions with environmental advocates, and is now preparing to create a swathe of vast marine conservation zones.

Greens presented the White House with a “wish list” of 30 areas in US territorial waters that would benefit from official protection, in sites ranging from Maine to Alaska. Now officials from Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality have reportedly narrowed the list down to about five finalists, and a binding decision is expected within a month.

It’s a clever move by Bush, who would dearly like to be remembered as something other than the president who passed the buck on climate change, but has neither the time nor the inclination to attempt a major overhaul of his environmental policies. Marine reserves are a neat solution: Under the Antiquities Act of 1906 they can be signed into existence almost instantly, making them perfect for a lame-duck president keen to salvage his environmental legacy.

What’s more, Bush’s focus on ocean conservation will enable him to create some seriously vast reserves. One of the most promising candidates for protection is a 600,000-square mile area of coral-rich ocean in the Central Pacific; another is a 100,000-square mile stretch near the Marianas Trench. If Bush were to protect all the shortlisted regions, he’d leave office having created somewhere close to a million square miles’ worth of monuments - many times more than any other president.

That should be enough to guarantee him a laudatory paragraph or two in the annals of the American conservation movement, even given his otherwise dismal environmental record; indeed, some ocean conservationists have already dubbed Bush the “Teddy Roosevelt of the seas." That’s overstating things a bit, of course: After all, Bush’s plan has its origins in Clinton-era proposals for a network of marine reserves - and might have been implemented far sooner had it not been for Bush’s readiness to kowtow to conservative Republicans like former House Resources Committee chair James Hansen.

Still, it would be churlish to quibble over these points: The truth is that Bush’s bid for a blue legacy looks set to have massive consequences for the marine conservation movement. We don’t have to forgive Dubya his past environmental sins - but neither should we try to deny him his brief moment in the sun.