I’m starting to realize that the word “unique” is quickly becoming obsolete in trying to describe the experience and world that is Midway. The wildlife, habitat, and general marine ecology here are certainly unmatched in terms of biodiversity as well as quantity, with 2-3 million seabirds breeding on the atoll annually. While you might think of Laysan Albatross affectionately preening each other and White Terns fluttering overhead like oversized white butterflies, there’s more than meets the eye at Midway. In particular, Midway Atoll has quite a few notable titles to its name. First off, Midway Atoll is a national wildlife refuge located within the nation's largest conservation area, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It is also home to the Battle of Midway Memorial. Plus, it is the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States. But what do all of these titles, designations, and inscriptions mean? And what do they entail exactly?
As part of the National Wildlife Refuge System under the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (within the Department of the Interior) Midway Atoll is part of an extensive network of more than 560 National Wildlife Refuges and over 30 wetland management districts that protects approximately 150 million acres of land (about the size of Texas) across the United States. National Wildlife Refuges (NWR’s) include a variety of ecological systems, ranging from the expansive, mountainous Arctic NWR in Alaska to the balmy, tropical Key West NWR of Florida. As different as these refuges may seem, the mission at each is the same: to “conserve, manage, and restore fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the US” for all of us to enjoy and appreciate, today and tomorrow. And while this seems like a simple, straightforward strategy to conserving the nation’s natural systems, the philosophy behind this is truly admirable and inspiring in that it embodies values of ecology and equity.
It would be lovely to explain that the idea for National Wildlife Refuges occurred organically, that the NWR System was created in a harmonious manner with philosophies of sustainability and conservation on the forefront. However, to put it simply, these refuges were created to protect the nation’s lands and waterways… from ourselves. The story of the NWR System starts in the early twentieth century. Picture this: Frank Chapman, a pioneering ornithologist of the late nineteenth century, recorded forty different species of birds as he walked through downtown Manhattan in 1886. None of the birds he observed moved on their own account; instead, they were all dead, stuffed, and mounted upon hats of wealthy, upper class women following the newest fashion craze. Decorative applications had begun humbly with a few feathers, but soon became increasingly extravagant and incorporated extensive arrangements of plumes, wings, entire birds, and even fruit, flowers, fur, mice, and small reptiles. Long, elegant, white plumes were especially sought after. In fact, from 1897-1911, more than one million heron and egret skins alone were sold to the millinery market. As a result, hunters and “plumers” killed more than 15 million American birds, ranging from small hummingbirds to large waterfowl, each year to meet the booming demands of the latest fashion trend.
The widespread massacre of birds for this market elicited strong opposition, especially so from Theodore Roosevelt, who fervently believed that all birds should be “protected in every way.” Beginning with Pelican Island in 1903, the last breeding colony of brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida and one of the hardest hit sites by feather trade hunters and plumer gangs, Roosevelt began to protect birds by safeguarding their habitat through a series of federally protected bird reservations (i.e. National Wildlife Refuges), physically separating birds from people on the basis of biological conservation. While his efforts were successful in the sense that he set aside fifty-one such reservations and in doing so spearheaded the NWR System, only a relatively small group of fellow conservationists, scientists, and ardent outdoorsmen shared his approach to bird conservation at the time. Indeed, Roosevelt’s decisions caused strong reactions and these became quite violent. In 1905, the actions of a gang of “plumers” escalated to the murder of an American game warden, Guy Bradley, who was single-handedly responsible for enforcing the ban on bird hunting throughout the Everglades.
As controversial as Roosevelt’s actions may have seemed in the historical, cultural, and economic contexts of the early twentieth century, the National Wildlife Refuge System has persevered. Midway Atoll joined the NWR System officially in 1996, adding approximately 1,500 acres (among the three islands part of the atoll --Sand, Eastern, and Spit) of habitat that support the world's largest population of albatrosses, Bonin Petrels and endangered Laysan Ducks. In addition to being an NWR, Midway Atoll also falls under the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (the name “Papahānaumokuākea” celebrates the unification of two Hawaiian ancestors – Papahānaumoku and Wākea), the single largest fully protected conservation area in the United States, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, encompassing nearly 140,000 square miles (362,073 square kilometers- an area larger than all the United States’ national parks combined) of the Pacific Ocean and Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
While some wildlife refuges are open to a variety of wildlife-dependent activities (such as hunting and fishing), Midway Atoll NWR protects both natural and cultural resources, with stricter guidelines and regulations set in place. For example, the removal, moving, taking, harvesting, possessing, injuring, disturbing, or of any living or nonliving resource is forbidden. In addition, all human access and activity remains by permit only within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Beyond the birds, Midway Atoll has a special place in human culture and history. Especially so for Native Hawaiians, Papahānaumokuākea is culturally and spiritually significant in terms of Hawaiian cosmology. In fact, the island of Mokumanamana has the highest density of sacred sites in the Hawaiian Archipelago. To further highlight just how special this place is, the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as one of only 28 mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Sites in the world, celebrating both the oldest example of island formation and atoll evolution in the world as well as the indigenous and cultural connections to the sea. Although World Heritage designation does not change or add to the current mission and regulations in place within the Monument, it does bring more emphasis to efforts of education, virtual exposure, and limited visitation that will help to protect the Monument into the future.
In addition to longtime cultural aspects, Midway Atoll played a crucial role in recent history, specifically during WWII. As the war escalated, the United States became increasingly concerned with the threat that Japan posed and Midway Atoll became one of the prime defenses (deemed second only to Pearl Harbor) to protect the West Coast. Although Midway Atoll was attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the most important battle occurred four months later on June 4, 1942, one that would signal a turning point in the war and begin the end of the Japanese Navy's control of the Pacific Ocean (more history about Midway Atoll to come!). To remember and reflect upon the grand sacrifices made during the Battle of Midway and those of any and all servicemen and servicewomen, Midway Atoll was designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial on September 13, 2000.
Midway Atoll NWR is a one-of-a-kind place in that there is a complex intersection of ecology, culture, and history at play all around the atoll. Laysan Albatross stroll down the same streets that American soldiers did 70 years ago when safeguarding the atoll during WWII; hundreds of years ago, Hawaiian ancestors walked across the same sandy islands that we do today. History is alive on the island and it reminds us every day that Midway Atoll is indeed a product of time. Time in terms of geology, evolution, hot spots, and coral reefs. Time in terms of humanity, discovery, war, and peace.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.