Last October, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called on the press to pay more attention to the Obama administration’s achievements in environmental conservation.
In response, The Miami Herald’s Carl Hiaasen suggested that the government give journalists more to write about, and he had a point. On Sunday, The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin had a revealing article (which should’ve gotten higher billing in the paper) about the president’s “modest personal interest in wilderness protection.” But Salazar had a point as well. Articles like Eilperin’s are all too rare. Case in point: Obama’s National Ocean Policy.
In 2010, Obama established the policy, and created the National Ocean Council, based on the recommendations of an inter-agency task force that he’d created a year earlier. But it was really the culmination of a decade-long effort, which began with the Oceans Act of 2000, to institute a holistic federal approach to managing the country’s oceans, coastal areas, and the Great Lakes.
More than a dozen agencies and countless laws currently have a hand in that process, and the National Ocean Policy is an effort to make it more effective, efficient, and, ultimately, cheaper. At its core is what’s called coastal and marine spatial planning, an “integrated, ecosystem-based approach” to identify the areas most suitable to activities like recreational and commercial fishing, energy production, shipping, naval exercises, and water sports. The idea is to meet the nation’s economic, environmental, and security needs in a sustainable way.
The White House emphasizes that the National Ocean Policy is about revamping the use of existing authority and that it “does not require new legislation in order to be implemented and does not supersede or alter any agency or department’s existing authority,” but it’s been incredibly controversial. While the scientific community and environmentalists support the policy, fishermen, energy companies, and others have denounced it as more big government.
The political battle over implementing the policy has come to a head in the last six months, but there’s been almost no news coverage of it. Instead, the media have relegated the public debate to the opinion pages and advocacy websites, with unfortunate consequences.
Four months before Obama even instituted the policy, ESPN had to apologize for unbalanced column on its website, which readers mistook for news and started a pernicious rumor that the president wanted “to ban fishing.” When Obama signed the executive order establishing the policy four months later, it got scant coverage. Ironically, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was ongoing at the time, ended up overshadowing, rather than accentuating, its significance (although its worth pointing out that the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which laid off half its newsroom this week, produced both a news article and an editorial about it).
In 2011, Politico and McClatchy’s DC bureau published decent articles about the congressional “sparring” over implementation of the National Ocean Policy, and newspapers in seaside towns like Bangor, ME, and Gloucester, MA, wrote about local fishermen’s consternation with the policy. Deep dives into why better ocean management is needed were left to liberal advocacy outfits like ThinkProgress, which were too critical of Republicans to be convincing.
The conflict has intensified since the beginning of this year, but the coverage has remained on the sidelines. In January, a New York Times blog post reported on a draft of the White House’s plan to turn policy into action. In March a Boston Globe columnist highlighted a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that marine spatial planning prevents $1 million in losses to the fishing and whale-watching industry and generates $10 billion in extra value for the energy sector.