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Obama's Blue Frontier

An executive order establishing a national ocean policy for the practical use and long-term protection of our public seas could be one of Barack Obama's outstanding achievements.
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In 1890, the Census Bureau declared the Western Frontier closed. Then in 1983 President Ronald Reagan established a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone stretching 200 miles out from America's shoreline, a vast 3.4 million square mile saltwater domain six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase. More than a quarter century later, President Barack Obama is moving towards a unified policy to oversee it. In June, our first bodysurfing Commander-in-Chief established the Interagency Ocean Policy Taskforce to protect and manage this largest, most challenging wilderness frontier in our nation's history, giving it until the end of the year to develop a plan that he can implement.

Right now, our public seas and waters are administered by more than 20 federal bureaucracies with little or no regard for the cumulative impacts of competing and often overlapping uses of our coasts and ocean. The result: citizen stakeholders are drowning in red tape even as our marine ecosystems continue to degrade. Two major blue ribbon panels on the Ocean issued reports in 2003 and 2004 calling for a more unified approach to ocean governance.

In addition, more than 2,000 people turned out for the "public listening sessions" the President's Task Force held this fall. Hundreds of citizens and experts gave testimony in six coastal cities while many more submitted written statements to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is leading the effort. Each meeting reflected its own set of geographic concerns, whether over the need to protect Arctic resources in Alaska, restore coastal wetlands in Louisiana or deal with invasive species such as Asian Carp in the Great Lakes. Still, a common theme among 75-80 percent of those who testified was support for the government taking a more unified approach in addressing environmental and safety concerns and working with local people in seeking solutions.

An example of why a comprehensive approach is needed was reflected in a recent decision by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke (who oversees NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to ban commercial fishing in 250,000 square miles of climate-impacted Arctic waters north of the Bering Sea until the effects on this rapidly changing ecosystem are better understood. His decision was supported and encouraged by both commercial fishermen and environmentalists. At the same time, the Department of Interior continues to issue oil and gas drilling permits in these same high-risk waters like it's Dick Cheney's birthday, ignoring the precautionary principle ("first, do no harm") being practiced by its sister agency. A comprehensive National Ocean Policy would prevent this kind of inconsistent stove piped approach to managing our frontier waters.

The President directed that any new ocean policy be based on Marine Spatial Planning, and after an interim report issued in September, this will be the focus of the Task Force's second report to the President in December to be followed by a final one in January.

Marine Spatial Planning is such a new field of applied science that agreed standards and metrics for measuring its practice are not yet in place. My understanding of MSP is as a kind of 3D ocean and coastal zoning that would incorporate a system of cleaned up watersheds and estuaries, greener ports and offshore shipping lanes, wildlife migration corridors, clearly delineated fossil fuel and clean energy offshore production, national defense training and fishing areas, recreational and marine wilderness parks and other integrated and mapped approaches that reduce user conflicts and impacts.

Examples of MSP range from a fishing-family based initiative in Port Orford, Oregon to an ocean management plan being implemented by the state of Massachusetts. Other more limited examples include the Coast Guard's relocating shipping lanes in New England to avoid the feeding ground of endangered right whales or using ship-tracking AIS transponders to determine how a proposed LNG site will impact maritime traffic on our increasingly crowded waters.

Just as his 1983 executive order establishing our EEZ ocean frontier may be one of Ronald Reagan's least known but most significant actions as president, an executive order establishing a national ocean policy for the practical use and long-term protection of our public seas could be one of Barack Obama's outstanding achievements. After all, it's not every president who gets to redefine a frontier or restore the blue in our red, white and blue.

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