Ecotourism ends at Midway Atoll
Midway Atoll has been described as the "window" to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as the only site open to the public within the remote island chain.
But that view is dimming with the federal budget crunch, a more than $1 million budget shortfall and a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shut down ecotourism. The agency also will allow no new research and reduce its 10-person on-island staff to five, among other cutbacks.
"It's very frustrating for us," said Barry Stieglitz, the service's refuge supervisor for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. "We worked very hard to get a visitor services program restored to Midway after it was inaccessible for a number of years — and then to have this happen after these wonderful (ecotourism) contractors got these tours up and running again."
Stieglitz added that "it's hard on them and it's hard on us because Midway is such an amazing place, and we really do want to share it with the American people that are paying for it."
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, whose natural history is rivaled by the legendary sea battle that was a turning point in World War II, faced budget and management problems before, operating from 2002 through 2007 without a visitor program.
The shutdown is back for the 2013 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.
That means at least for the remainder of the fiscal year, no permit-based natural history tours; videography, journalism, photography or university visits; or Native Hawaiian practice permits, said Ann Bell, the Fish and Wildlife visitor services manager for the national monument.
Bell said with the staff cut in half, Fish and Wildlife doesn't have oversight capability for those groups anymore.
When, or if, ecotourism or new research might return is unclear, officials said.
"It's a real loss," said Birgit Winning, whose California-based Oceanic Society made four trips to Midway with a total of 50 people earlier this year. "This was a very important opportunity to educate the public. We lost that."
The trips out to Midway were expensive, in part because an airplane had to be chartered to get there. The Oceanic Society said it cost about $6,000 a person for the weeklong visit.
Fish and Wildlife said 332 people visited on permits during the 2012 season.
"When people address this, they say, ‘Well, you only bring out so few people,' but I think the thing that's unique about Midway is that the people who come out really share it," Winning said.
"It's a very deep connection they form with that place," she said, adding, "they really become advocates for this refuge system."
One of the biggest losers in the loss of ecotourism is the Fish and Wildlife Service "because public support for their mission is so important," Winning said. "This (ecotourism) was one way to have a passionate constituency."
Nearly 3 million birds call Midway home for much of each year, including the world's largest population of Laysan albatross, or "gooney birds." Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and spinner dolphins frequent Midway's blue lagoon.
Located 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu, Midway is one of the oldest atoll systems in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, originating as a volcano about 27 million years ago.
It was the last link in a global telegraph system inaugurated by a message from President Theodore Roosevelt on July 4, 1903, and the atoll and its surrounding waters were the site of the famous June 4-7, 1942, battle that saw Japan lose four aircraft carriers.
Midway has about 120 often dilapidated buildings, including cable company buildings, maintenance shops, hangars, warehouses, barracks, residences, a cold storage, a theater and a gymnasium. Most were built between 1941 and 1960.
On May 20, 1996, custody of Midway Atoll was transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Fewer than 100 people now live on Midway, including Fish and Wildlife and Federal Aviation Administration employees and contract support workers.
Midway's distance from Honolulu makes it expensive to operate as a wildlife refuge.
"The budget has simply not kept up with increases in the cost of fuel and infrastructure maintenance," Stieglitz said in August.
The Fish and Wildlife Midway budget was $5.6 million in fiscal 2009, $5.7 million in 2010, $6 million in 2011 and $6.7 million in 2012, officials said.
The service said it pulled in more than $1 million from other national wildlife refuges in fiscal 2012 to help when Midway couldn't make ends meet, but that money isn't there for the 2013 year with the budget projected to be $5.6 million.
The FAA has a separate budget and oversees Henderson Airfield, which serves as an emergency landing strip for twin-engine jetliners, officials said.
A Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter flying from Honolulu to Iwakuni, Japan, made a "precautionary" landing on Midway on Aug. 2 after experiencing a mechanical problem. A Delta 747 with 359 passengers made an emergency stop in 2011.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that even with the budget shortfall, the emergency landing capability will remain. Both federal agencies share operating costs on Midway.
Fish and Wildlife said it also is looking at possibly reducing the frequency of support flights and vessel traffic to the island to lower the amount of fuel purchased to save money.
There are other impacts: Officials said the reduction in staff will affect the ability to do seabird monitoring.
Fish and Wildlife used to assist the Coast Guard with emergency medical evacuations from ships at sea, sending people out in a small boat to meet a ship and bring back to Midway injured or sick individuals who would then be airlifted out on a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft.
"We're not going to be able to do that (anymore)," Stieglitz said. "We don't have enough core positions left with the capability and experience to do that."