June 15, 2006 — -- The islands of northwestern Hawaii are so wild and so remote that even the most adventurous of us will likely never come close to them.
There are 7,000 different species catalogued there, a quarter of them found in no other place on earth. The volcanic islands on which they depend stretch 1,200 miles out into the Pacific, far beyond the major islands of Hawaii that most tourists visit.
"It is a spectacular place," said Joshua Reichert of the Pew Charitable Trusts, who fought for eight years to protect the region. "It's really like rolling Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon all into one."
Reichert said the archipelago was also in danger. Even though most of northwest Hawaii is uninhabited, a handful of fishing boats had nearly wiped out the lobster population -- which in turn was killing off the monk seals that fed on them.
"From an ocean perspective this is one of the crown jewels of the global marine environment," Reichert said. "This is an area that contains roughly 70 percent of the shallow water tropical coral reefs in U.S. waters."
But out of sight, out of mind.
Presidents as long ago as Theodore Roosevelt took steps to protect the area, but none of them spent very much political capital on it. President Bush, early in his first term, considered weakening some protections imposed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton.
Then he had a change of heart.
At a White House dinner in April, Jean-Michel Cousteau -- son of the famed explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau -- played "Voyage to Kure," a one-hour documentary he had made about the Hawaiian archipelago -- showing how sea birds were choking on debris that washed up from thousands of miles away.
In the film, Cousteau can be seen swimming in the abundant waters and walking on beaches covered with trash. He stops to pick some of it up for the camera.
"Here is a toothbrush," he says. "A lighter. Mascara."
"We have failed to make the link between the importance of the ocean and the quality of our lives," said Cousteau in an interview with ABC News.
People who attended the White House dinner said the president and Laura Bush were clearly affected by Cousteau's work.
Cousteau and other conservationists -- many of them surprised to be invited to the White House -- argued that. Bush could protect a vast part of the sea at very little political cost. Even the fishermen, they pointed out, were worried that by overfishing in northwestern Hawaii they'd put themselves out of business.
"We really need to highlight that place and protect it to make sure it is there forever," said Cousteau today.
Conservationists have battled with the Bush administration over global climate change, oil drilling and protection of wilderness. But with a stroke of the pen, Bush is protecting an area larger than any president has before him. No fishing, no drilling, nothing harmful will be allowed within 50 miles of any island in the chain.
"Our duty is to use the land and seas wisely or sometimes not use them at all," said the president at the signing ceremony. "Good stewardship of the environment is not just a personal responsibility. It is a public value."