President Obama visited one of the USA's most remote island territories Thursday to tout his conservation record and highlight the threat that climate change poses to Pacific islands.
Standing on a pristine beach on Midway Island, Obama recognized both the historical and ecological significance of the six-mile-long atoll northwest of Hawaii.
"Let me start by saying that this is hallowed ground," he told reporters, referencing the 1942 Battle of Midway, a naval battle that destroyed four Japanese aircraft carriers and dealt the empire its first major defeat of World War II. "For us to be able to visit this monument and remind ourselves of the sailors and airmen and everyone involved who were able to rebuff the Japanese force, that was vastly outnumbered, is a testament to their courage and their perseverance."
But Obama's visit was more about the future of the Pacific than its past. Last week, Obama signed a proclamation extending the boundaries of the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument, a marine reserve that surrounds the outer islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. The reserve is home to 7,000 species of birds, fish, turtles and coral — many of them endangered.
"It is also spectacular as an ecosystem," he said, arguing that by permanently protecting the area from fishing and future development it will "generate the kind of biodiversity that allows us to study it, research and understand our oceans better than we ever have before."
Obama is in the midst of a 10-day foreign-and-domestic trip that will focus largely on environmental issues. In Lake Tahoe, Nev. on Wednesday, Obama linked conservation and climate change, and later flew to Honolulu where he addressed the leaders of Pacific Island nations whose entire existence are threatened by rising seas.
On Saturday, he'll arrive in China for an economic summit where he will try to cement support for the worldwide climate deal signed in Paris last year.
Brian Deese, the president's chief climate adviser, compared the Pacific trip to Obama's Alaska visit exactly one year ago, where he toured melting glaciers and became the first president to trek north of the Arctic Circle. "And because the president has a spotlight, him actually going and visiting these places raises the profile in a way that might not happen otherwise," Deese said.
But this trip is even closer to Obama's heart, aides said.
"This is the president’s home state," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One — a smaller Boeing 757 version better equipped to land on the island's shorter runway. "It’s not a stretch to say that the president feels this personally. He has his own personal connection to this area of the world and this region of our country."
After greeting the 40 people who live and work on the island, Obama took a golf cart to tour its World War II-era buildings. The island — technically an atoll because it's built on coral reefs rather than the volcanic rock of the Hawaiian Islands — was once controlled by the military but is now under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which restricts visits to research and educational purposes.
On the aptly named Turtle Beach, Obama looked out at the blue waters, turned to reporters and said, "I can't wait to get in."
The White House said Obama planned to go snorkeling with friends to see the marine life on the atoll's submerged coral reefs.