Midway: A Symbol of Hope for Planet Earth

© Jaymi Heimbuch

I nearly stumbled over it -- a dead adult Laysan Albatross whose head rested up against a bright blue rubber flip flop washed ashore at some point, probably during the tsunami last year. "Environmental footprint" rang loudly in my ears. I snapped a shot and moved forward, scanning the ground and trying to comprehend the mix of rocks, weeds, bones and brightly colored plastic debris.

We were walking across Eastern Island, the tiny spit of land across from Sand Island where much of the World War II history of Midway took place. Our group of a dozen ecotourists was making its way back from visiting the Short-Tailed Albatross chick, only the second of this critically endangered species to have hatched on Midway in modern times. The first, hatched last year, made it through storms and even the March tsunami to fledge successfully. Walking single file, most of us were trying our best to absorb the fact that there is almost as much plastic debris as pebbles across the old runway that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. I looked up and asked Wayne Sentman, the biologist leading the trip for Oceanic Society, "Is there any particular message you want to make sure comes through to readers?"

He thought for a moment and said something that stuck with me more powerfully than anything else during the trip: "As remote as Midway is, it still battles many of the same environmental problems we expect to find only in more populated regions. In effect, Midway is a microcosom of our planet's environmental struggles."

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway is this tiny piece of isolated land, yet the remoteness and small size doesn't mean things are simple -- Midway faces a dizzying array of complex problems that highlight just how interconnected everything is, from air, water, and animals, to economics and culture. Those problems, as well as the solutions and small successes that have been achieved so far in returning Midway to health, make it an example and inspiration for sustainability around the entire planet.

"However," Sentman notes, "if we can't figure things out in this remote part of the Pacific Ocean, what does that mean fore more densely populated coastlines and island nations?"

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway Atoll's Rich History

Midway is an apt name for the tiny atoll. It is smack dab in the middle of the Pacific between North America and Asia, and is part of the most remote archipelago in the world. Yet the impact humans have had on this island is immense. As far from every other major land mass as it can possibly be, Midway acts as a perfect example for the state of our planet. Like Earth, Midway is extremely isolated, vitally important, faces broad threats from climate change and pollution, and yet despite the overwhelming odds, has dedicated people helping to create success after success for protecting endangered fauna and restoring the habitat as much as possible.

Though it sits just south of the swirl of the Great Pacific Trash Gyre, Midway is a paradise. Three small islands are only about 1,500 acres total, but this little bit of land has played a major role in evolutionary history as well as human history.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Those of us who remember our history lessons might know that Midway was discovered thousands of years ago by Tahitians journeying to Hawai'i. Later, it was claimed for the United States by Captain N.C. Brooks in 1859 and was named Middlebrooks Islands. In 1902, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company began work laying down the first telegraph line to cross the Pacific Ocean, connecting San Francisco to Asia, via Honolulu, Midway, Guam, Manila, and China. The following year, President Theodore Roosevelt sent out a handful of marines to protect the area from Japanese feather and egg collectors and to keep the cable station workers safe.

The Navy set up shop and Midway was a naval stronghold during World War II. The most decisive naval battle in the war and many say in naval history, Battle of Midway, was fought here. After decades of acting as a military base through the Korean War, Vietnam and Cold War, Midway was downgraded to a Naval Air Facility from 1968 to 1996, and became an overlay national wildlife refuge under Navy jurisdiction. It wasn't until 1996 that Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge was formally recognized and control was given to the Department of the Interior.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

In 2002, President Bill Clinton used his power of executive order to create the Northwest Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Reserve, which provided a certain level of protections for the area. On June 15, 2006, Midway Atoll was proclaimed the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument by U.S. President George W. Bush, and was renamed Papahānaumokuākea in 2007. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both its natural and cultural status; it is one of only 28 mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Sites in the world, encompassing 140,000 square miles and supporting 7,000 species, one quarter of which are endemic. It is currently the third largest marine protected area in the world.

Preserving Both History and Habitat

That heritage is the driving force behind major conservation efforts to deal with the with pollution coming in from other areas of the world, the pollution generated on the island during the time it was used as a military base, and the legacy of invasive species brought in since the island was first used by the Pacific Cable Company in the early 1900s.

There are limited funds to care for and restore the habitat, and conflicting interests on how the area should be treated since it serves as both an important ecosystem and significant piece of American history. There is a cultural heritage to protect along with numerous endangered species, species whose current endangered status relates directly to past human activities on Midway.

According to Sentman, "To reclaim the island and oceans' ecosystems, and to maximize the health of the dependent native wildlife and plant species, this is not to put wildlife needs over historic concerns but rather a way to revitalize and protect a system for future generations. Perhaps this might be viewed as the greatest tribute to the past human history we as a community could bestow on this monument."

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway is allotted some $5 million a year to run the area, with another $3 million allotted by the FAA to keep the runway operational. This is a relative drop in the bucket for what is needed to pay for staffing and researchers as well as to pay for restoration projects for buildings and habitat. For example, there is a current project underway to clean up lead paint from the soil around the buildings originally built to house the cable company workers and later used by military officers. The lead paint contamination goes as deep as 15 feet underground, and the massive clean-up effort is estimated to cost $20 million dollars. When important restoration efforts have such large price tags, the annual budget is stretched to its absolute limits.

Dealing with this burdensome load is a core group of dedicated people including environmental conservationists, Fish and Wildlife Service employees, volunteers, veterans, and more. Somehow, Midway is managing to delicately navigate the complicated web of needs and wants for both people and wildlife. Held within that dance is a series of successes that can act as lessons for how sustainability can be accomplished worldwide. Those successes include the monumental task of eradicating invasive species, establishing a "backup" population of Laysan Teal, a critically endangered species of duck, bringing the threatened Short-Tailed Albatross back to the island through years of playing sound recordings and setting up decoys and conducting scientific research from monitoring carbon dioxide levels in a a world-wide study to analyzing marine debris washed up on the beaches to understand marine pollution.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Midway As A Learning Experience

Despite its location, or perhaps because of it, It is a vital place for many threatened and endangered species including Laysan Albatross, Black-Footed Albatross, Green sea turtles, Hawaiian Monk Seals and many other species. But Midway is at risk from outside influences as well. Sea level rise and stronger storms due to climate change are very real threats. The tsunami that resulted from the earthquake in Japan in March of 2011 had devastating effects for the nesting birds. Many were killed in the wave or buried in debris. Plastic kills thousands of birds every year as it is mistaken as food and eaten or fed to chicks. Invasive species like verbesina, the roots of which loosen soil, collapse the dens of burrowing birds, killing chicks. The non-native ironwood trees kill albatross that get tangled in the branches, and white terns lay their eggs in the branches where they too often roll off and are crushed. The list could go on -- and we will explore many of these issues in depth in upcoming articles -- but suffice it to say that Midway has a long, long way to go before it is perfectly in balance again.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Yet, there are people dedicated to restoring that balance, and little by little, it is coming about. During my week stay on Midway, I learned so much about creating smart solutions for big problems through hands-on trial and error, learning to deal with the fact that some problems take a long, long time to solve, the care that everyone has for preserving the history of an area while returning it to its original health, and appreciating the incredible diversity of wildlife found on such a small piece of land. Midway is a rich place both for wildlife and for human history -- keeping both in tact and thriving is the goal of everyone involved in conservation on the island.

The lessons learned here on Midway about placing the ecosystem first to ensure the survival of many species and the well-being of the human population can be translated to the entire planet, and the successes experienced through long-term management strategies and the ongoing efforts to restore vitality to the island are messages of hope for what can be accomplished globally.

For the next month, we will explore many of these issues, from plastic pollution, conservation efforts, endemic species, and amazing projects. Follow posts at our Midway page and see some wonderful photos of the wildlife.

A portion of this week-long trip to Midway was sponsored by the Oceanic Society. If you're interested in visiting Midway, be sure to check out trip dates!

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Tags: Biodiversity | Biology | Conservation | longreads | Midway