NEW! Click here to read Part II of the "THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE CLOSING" added April 2, 2002
One has to go back to the beginning to find out the truth behind every story. This story begins in early 1993 when the International Midway Memorial Foundation (IMMF) discovered that the U.S. Navy was closing its operations on Naval Air Station Midway on September 30, 1993. With this in mind, we were anxious that summer to visit Eastern Island, one of two islands that comprise the Midway Atoll. While under Navy jurisdiction, LCDR Michael Driggers was kind enough to take us to this island in his private boat. As we were disembarking from his boat, angry representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) traveling in two motorized rafts rapidly approached us shouting endless expletives, endless that is, until they realized the lieutenant commander was with us. This was my first experience with the USFWS at Midway.
After returning to the United States, I was disappointed to find out that the U.S. Navy had no further interest in Midway. My concern now was that the Navy's departure would leave the historic sites on Midway vulnerable to the destructive intent of the USFWS, evidenced by the fact that only a few structures on Midway had been designated as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). None of these were on Eastern Island.
With the assistance of the National Park Service (NPS), I proceeded to do the paper work to designate the airstrip on Eastern Island as an NHL. I found an NPS document that evaluated potential sites on Midway eligible for NHL status. However, the most important historic site on Midway - the airstrip on Eastern Island - had been labeled "not to be considered for National Historic Landmark status." Shortly thereafter, I lost the cooperation of NPS.
In early 1994, it became obvious that the USFWS would be the recipient of the Midway Atoll, the result of a transfer from the U.S. Navy to "another federal agency." Upon meeting with the Assistant Acting Director, William Hartwig, of USFWS, I learned that their ultimate goal was to make Midway "pristine" - today all of the ironwood trees on Eastern Island have been poisoned and cut down; the same fate is planned for Sand Island over the next 15 years. I also learned that USFWS would dynamite the airstrip on Eastern if they could raise the funds. In a followup letter from the Acting Assistant Director, it became clear that the USFWS opposed Midway becoming a National Historic Park because it would "interfere with the wildlife."
In April 1994, the IMMF was asked to attend the first meeting of the Midway Reuse Committee which was held in Pearl Harbor. The IMMF proposed a multi-federal agency and private sector approach to the management of the Atoll. This recommendation resulted in the Foundation not being asked to return. However, after eliciting the strong support of Rear Admiral Bud Nance, USN (Ret.) and Senator Jesse Helms, the Reuse Committee invited the IMMF to return. The outcome was the same. Every organization there, including the U.S. Navy, the NPS, the National Marine Fisheries and the Western Pacific Region Fishery Management Council, all favored the USFWS takeover of Midway. The only exception was the IMMF. Upon leaving the meeting, I resolved to return to Congress to encourage legislation to save the historic sites on Midway.
During this time, I received documentary evidence that there were plans to demolish the historic Cable Buildings, the Seaplane Hangar and Ramp, the Marine Corps Reservation/Air Terminal Building, the Command Post and 19 other Category 1 and 2 historic structures. The plan also included filling up the 3-inch Naval Gun Battery on Sand Island and the 3-inch anti-aircraft gun on Eastern Island. A letter of protest was sent from Senator Helms and the IMMF. As of today, the IMMF does not know the status of these structures.
In November 1997, Senator Helms introduced a bill in the Senate to designate the Midway Atoll a National Memorial. The bill languished in Congress as the USFWS opposed its passage. The bill finally passed in both Houses in 1999 and was signed by President Clinton in 2000.
On September 13, 2000, following the bill's passage, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt directed the USFWS, through Order 3217, to establish a Planning Committee for the National Memorial. This Committee was to produce recommendations on the preservation of Midway's historic structures to USFWS within one year of the Secretary's order. The USFWS has yet to comply with that directive.
In June 2001, the Foundation was refused permission to install a flag pole, from which a newly designed flag honoring the Atoll as a National Memorial would fly. The IMMF was also denied permission to dedicate a new marble/granite National Memorial monument which would compliment the existing monuments. USFWS maintained that both structures would endanger the birds by posing a "strike hazard". As a result, the Foundation was dissuaded from holding its ceremonies at Midway last year.
With this background in mind, I was not surprised to learn in February of this year that Midway Phoenix Corporation was closing its operations on Midway and that this decision was based on the extreme policies of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Based on past experience with the USFWS, it is fair to say that access to Midway by the public was doomed to failure from the beginning. While the agency spoke words of cooperation, its actions were on an inexorable path to ensure that the Atoll would be closed to the public and that all traces of its history would be lost forever. Any favorable decisions with respect to the military and cultural history of Midway were based on political expediency. Two obvious examples immediately come to mind: the USFWS's opposition to designating the Atoll a National Historical Landmark and the plan to destroy the 25 category 1 and 2 historic structures noted above. It was only after intense political pressure from Senators Helms and Akaka that USFWS changed their position. The only way to stop USFWS from completing their mission of eradicating all traces of human habitation on Midway and its rich history is for Congress to replace USFWS with another federal agency. The IMMF is promoting a bill in the Senate and in the House to accomplish this change.
I urge all members and other interested parties to write letters of support for this bill to your Congressmen, and to the following:
The Honorable Jesse Helms
United States Senate
413 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D. C. 20510
The Honorable Daniel K. Akaka
United States Senate
141 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
The Honorable John Duncan
House of Representatives
2400 Rayburn House Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Midway Atoll is located 1100 nautical miles northwest of Honolulu. Wake Island is 1034 nautical miles to the southwest and Dutch Harbor, Alaska is 1651 nautical miles to the north of Midway. The Atoll is strategically located as a natural refueling site in the vast ocean of the north central Pacific. Nicholas Sabatina of the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) stated on October 12, 2001: "Midway Island is a required 180- and 207-minute alternative for certain routes in the central and north Pacific. It is vital to safety in air commerce for a sufficient number of airports to be available in the Pacific to provide emergency alternative airports. The loss of any of these for whatever reason removes an option from the crew to divert in an emergency and increases the time necessary to reach a suitable runway. This need is not limited to two-engine aircraft experiencing an engine failure. The alternate airport is also available for three and four engine aircraft experiencing aircraft emergencies such as engine and mechanical failure, cargo fires, decompression, fuel leaks, passenger or crew illness and severe turbulence upsets. It is vital to aviation safety for Midway Island and other currently operational small island airports in the mid-Pacific Ocean to remain open and operational under standards specified by Federal Aviation regulations".
Independent of the issue of Midway as a Wildlife Refuge and a National Memorial is the critical importance of the Atoll as a beacon of safety for planes in distress in the north central Pacific. However, even when the airport was open and being operated by the Midway Phoenix Corporation (MPC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unilaterally implemented a policy prohibiting refueling of planes at Midway. This was done without consulting MPC. Case in point: October 7, 2001 A Beechcraft with a non-functioning engine landed on Midway. Two days later, when Gerry Deutscher of the USFWS on the Atoll learned that a plane was flying in from Kwajalein with parts and a mechanic, he asked, "Is this arriving plane also going to need fuel. If so, this is just the situation we are trying to avoid during this time of tight fuel. The only way that we can avoid such 'rescue' efforts is not to allow transient aircraft to depart from a distant airfield with the expectation of getting fuel here or other aircraft support while at Midway."
On that same day, Mr. Deutscher contacted the U.S. Marine Corps Flight Scheduling Unit to inform them that "no fuel is available" for any aircraft or vessels; five days later he asserted that it was his understanding that this order was approved within the Secretary of the Interior's office. On October 24, 2001, a typhoon was creating problems for aircraft traveling between Hickam and Guam. The best avoidance would be for the aircraft to fly to the north, but this route required refueling at Midway. Permission was denied. As recent as March 15, 2002, a U.S. Army jet from the 78th Aviation Battalion was refused permission to land and refuel at Midway.
The foregoing clearly defines the extremism of the USFWS in carrying out its mission to manage the Wildlife Refuge while disregarding and/or enhancing the risk of serious injury or death to our military and commercial pilots and their crew members during flights over the north central Pacific. This disregard for the safety of military in the present by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is totally consistent with their disregard for the sacrifices made by the military in the past at Midway.
USFWS has been unable to effectively balance the critical multifunctional purpose of Midway Atoll, making decisions and implementing procedures which favor its mission for refuge preservation, while obstructing the justifiable aviation and historical functions of the Midway Islands. The USFWS' jurisdiction over the Midway Atoll must be replaced by another federal agency by the legislation proposed to the Congress by the International Midway Memorial Foundation.