The environmental legacy of the Bush administration is a matter of some dispute but by designating three more marine monuments in the Pacific today, George W. Bush has entered the annals of history as the protector of 335,000 square miles of ocean. In fact, environmentalists and Bush himself likened the action to President Theodore Roosevelt's creation of the national parks more than a century ago.

"President Roosevelt left office with many achievements and the most enduring of all was his commitment to conservation. As he once said: 'Of all the questions which can come before the nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us,'" Bush said today at the signing ceremony. "That spirit has guided the conservation movement for a century; it's guided my administration. Since 2001, we have put common-sense policies in place, and I can say upon departure, our air is cleaner, our water is purer, and our lands are better protected."

Environmentalists, who have clashed with Bush throughout his tenure,  quibble with his claims of cleaner water and air as well as that any lands are better protected. Among the environmental misdeeds laid at his door are failing to impose mandatory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions despite a campaign pledge to do so, weakening the Endangered Species Act and opening more federal lands to energy exploration.

But they do not dispute that Bush is the first president to protect significant swaths of U.S. territorial waters. The three new monuments will protect the Mariana Trench, the deepest canyon on Earth; coral reefs off the cost of the Mariana Islands; and an atoll known as "Islands of Seabirds" near American Samoa.

The three new monuments join Papahanaumokuakea off the shores of Hawaii, designated in 2006 and akin to the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1871, as the first marine monuments, and make President Bush responsible for the largest area of ocean protections ever, preserving relatively pristine areas from future abuses, though not all fishing.

"This marks the end of an era in which humans have increasingly understood the need to conserve vanishing wild places on land but failed to comprehend the similar plight of our oceans," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group in a statement. "It comes none too soon."

Credit: © Thomas