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'American Galapagos': Midway Atoll Needs Tourists To Help Clear Trash, Protect Coral Reefs; Unknown 'Treasure'

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Midway Atoll, July 24: The long stretch of atolls and coral reefs northwest of the main Hawaiian islands is so precious humans generally aren`t allowed to venture there.

Boats need special permits to enter. All fishing must stop in 2011, aside from what Native Hawaiians catch for cultural purposes. President Bush made the region the largest protected marine area in the world when he declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a marine national monument last year.

But there is one spot in the 1,400-mile archipelago where officials believe human visitors, in limited numbers, could do more good than harm: Midway Atoll.

In about six months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to allow tourists to visit Midway, primarily to help clear the island of debris and invasive species. Wildlife officials also hope visitors will leave having become strong advocates for the continued preservation of the monument.

"That is such a treasure that America is not yet aware of," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said during a recent visit to the remote island. The monument, recently named Papahanaumokuakea, is home to thousands of species found nowhere else in the world. Kempthorne said it was America`s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef.

Midway, in the upper extreme of the island chain, is a three-to-five-hour plane ride from the nearest city, Honolulu, depending on the type of aircraft.

Visitors are greeted immediately by the mating call sounds of hundreds of thousands of gooney birds, or Laysan albatross, echoing through the trees.

Hawaiian monk seals, a critically endangered species, lounge on the beach. Green sea turtles, a threatened species commonly known by its Hawaiian name "honu," lurch ashore to bask in the sun.

The atoll is best known for the 1942 battle in which the U.S. defeated Japan, turning the tide of World War II. Most of the fighting was offshore as U.S. and Japanese planes rained bombs on each other`s aircraft carriers, but a seaplane hangar and some other Midway buildings suffered heavy damage, still visible.

The Navy used the island as a base for decades during the Cold War but left in 1996.

Now refuge workers need help clearing harmful marine debris — such as fishing nets and hooks — that entangle and kill honu, fish, and monk seals.

They also need people to weed invasive plant species including the golden crownbeard, a bright yellow flower native to the Southwest. The flowers spread so far and fast that some gooney birds have trouble reaching their nesting grounds.

Authorities plan to allow the first tourists sometime between November and January, most likely in groups of 15 on a chartered plane from Honolulu. No more than 40 overnight visitors would be allowed.

A weeklong stay would cost one person about $3,600, including airfare from Honolulu and lodging in old military barracks.

Vacationers beware: Don`t expect to treat the atoll as the new Waikiki or Maui. Midway is no resort.

"Those that will ultimately come will want to pitch in," Kempthorne said.

Tourists won't be able to go water skiing or kite-surfing, although authorities will allow less disruptive activities including swimming and snorkeling. There's no shopping aside from a small gift store.

The refuge would also welcome up to three cruise ships per year, perhaps those making the rounds of World War II battlefields in the Pacific.

Stephanie Fried, senior scientist with the New York-based group Environmental Defense, worries the refuge won't have enough properly trained staff to watch visitors -- particularly the large numbers arriving on cruise ships -- so they don't trample on bird nests and disturb monk seals.

She added the refuge should limit the number of day travelers, not just overnighters, and visitors should be selected by lottery.

"Otherwise, all of the goodwill in the world may end up doing in this ecosystem," Fried said.

Staff will have to be vigilant so new invasive species don`t hitch rides with travelers arriving from far corners of the globe, said John Klavitter, a Midway wildlife biologist. He predicted the tourists would ultimately help the island.

"Anytime that you allow people to see the resource that they're protecting, it becomes more powerful," Klavitter said. "They say 'Wow, this is Midway. Let's for sure protect it.'"

A copy of the Midway Atoll Interim Visitor Services Plan (pdf) can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

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