Santa Barbara’s Own Cousteau Works His Magic in D.C.
by Russ Spencer
On June 15, George W. Bush — the president with the worst environmental record in the last 50 years — created by executive order the largest marine preserve in the world. The new Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument covers 140,000 square miles of ocean stretching from Kauai to Midway and encompassing a pristine array of atolls, sea mounts, and small islands, in an area larger than all of America’s national parks combined. Jean-Michel Cousteau, who spends about a third of his time in Santa Barbara, was the mastermind behind Bush’s shocking display of environmental concern.
With his company, the Ocean Futures Society, Cousteau first went to the area three years ago to lead a six-week expedition. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others had advocated the creation of a marine sanctuary there for years. What Cousteau found blew his mind: 14 million seabirds filling the skies, sweeping underwater landscapes of untouched coral, endangered species such as monk seals and green sea turtles thriving in obscurity, hundreds of endemic and yet-unidentified species, and vast schools of spinner dolphins and other big fish mostly absent now from the main Hawaiian Islands. Cousteau’s team turned 83 hours of footage from the expedition into a two-hour special for PBS titled Voyage to Kure. Through a series of advantageous connections, Cousteau found himself at the White House on the evening of April 5 — just a few hours before the program would make its debut on PBS — to screen the movie for the president, First Lady, and about 50 other administration figures. After watching the movie, Bush stood up, thanked Cousteau, and ordered his staff to “get it done,” “it” being the creation of this unprecedented preserve. The idea that Bush would personally request the showing of a PBS environmental special in his private screening room boggles the mind. But that’s just the beginning of one of the most fascinating and unlikely stories in the history of American preservation. Cousteau, still reeling, sat down with me last week in his Chapala Street office to discuss his involvement.
You’ve taken expeditions to some of the most inhospitable, foreboding places on earth. My question is: How did you manage to get into the Bush White House? (Laughs.) You know, people are people. As surprising as this is, when you approach people in a non-aggressive way and explain the pros and cons of something and how it relates to all of us, usually you get attention. If it makes sense and the advantages overcome the obstacles, good sense prevails.
Inasmuch as this particular administration in the last five years has not done much for the environment, in this particular case we got very much to the president’s good side and he really was turned on. He wanted to make a mark for himself, to take a very strong stand, and he did. I didn’t expect that much, frankly. But I feel it’s gutsy.
In what capacity did you approach the White House? It’s a long story. NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation were trying to get the area designated as a sanctuary for five-and-a-half years. So, about four years ago, I approached [the public broadcasting channel] KQED in San Francisco and they expressed an interest in doing a film. We needed a lot for permits to go there, but Ocean Futures Society took the financial risk to launch an expedition.
We did some research and met a few people. U.S. Fish and Wildlife [Service] offered to invite some of the scientists who had been there, one who specialized in birds and one coral reef expert, and we put the whole thing together. We left with some knowledge of what to expect, but we went pretty much into unexplored territory. What we found there was fascinating — from sea mounts to atolls to very complex coral reefs to finding out there were a lot of pelagic fish there (big fish that you don’t find in the Hawaiian Islands because they’ve been fished out). We went to a place called Kure Island, where there is a research center, and studied birds and endangered species.
We came back after six weeks with 83 hours of video. I had to go back to PBS and say it would be criminal not to do more than one hour, so we agreed to do two. Then I met with the governor of Hawai‘i [Linda Lingle] and I told her about my experience there. She invited me to do a premiere at the governor’s mansion in Honolulu, and she organized a fabulous event with hundreds of people. From there, I met with Jim Connaughton — who is a diver and also the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality — and urged him to talk to the president. Ultimately, we got a call saying that the president would like to invite a bunch of guests on April 5 to preview the film privately at the White House.
So it helped that you already had a friend in the Bush administration, and that the governor of Hawai‘i is a Republican. Yes, definitely. We got to the White House on April 5 at 3 p.m., and at 5 p.m., they screened the show in the White House screening room. We were told to pick up a drink and go sit down in the front row with the president and Mrs. Bush. There were people from the Department of the Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Commerce, NOAA, the Navy, Coast Guard, and Governor Lingle. The president was very attentive throughout the screening. I was sitting next to the First Lady, and she asked me several questions. She was trying to place herself geographically in the film. I would like to give her credit because I think perhaps she was a strong power behind the scenes, telling her husband that something had to be done.
The president stood up at the end of the show and said that he really enjoyed it, he had no idea that was the situation, and he congratulated me for the show. Then he gestured toward his staff and said, “Get it done.” I was dumbfounded to see how quickly he was ready to make a decision.
Just like that. Classic Bush to be so impulsive and insistent. Did you have any interaction with him after that? Well, we had dinner. I had the privilege of sitting next to him, together with Dr. Sylvia Earle, who is on my board. We spent that dinner trying to further convince the president of the importance of our case, and he asked a lot of questions. One of the things that really got to him is that there are 15 marine sanctuaries in the U.S. — including the one we have here at Channel Islands — and fishing is outlawed in very few of them. The fact that you can fish in sanctuaries just blew his mind. He’s a fisherman, his father was a sport fisherman, and I think he was convinced that in sanctuaries, you don’t fish. We had a very nice, pleasant dinner and answered his questions. As he was going to depart, he turned to us and said, quite forcefully, “No fishing!”
Did you know right away that he was going to make it a monument instead of a preserve? That’s even more astounding. Well, I got another call three months later saying the president wanted to make an announcement on June 15, and they would like me to be there. So I returned to D.C., and spoke to Jim Connaughton again; he was the one who told me the president wanted to make it a national monument, as opposed to a marine sanctuary. He explained that making it a sanctuary would require an extensive process wherein you create a plan, open it to public comment for 60 days, and then give it to Congress; they take a position whenever they decide to put it on the agenda. The process can last a year or two, and we had to tell that to the president. The president said, “No, I want to make it happen now. There must be a way.” One of his legal advisors told him, “You can make it a national monument if you want; you can do that with an executive order.” Bush said, “That’s what I want to do.”
The lawyer asked, “Well, how big should we make it?” The president said, “How big is the Great Barrier Reef?” When they told him it was 128,000 square miles, the president said, “Let’s make it 140,000 square miles.” The next day, it was declared a national monument. We went to the White House at 2 p.m. and got checked and had our pictures taken. I was honored to be in the room prior to the announcement with the president, Mrs. Bush, the secretary of the Interior, the secretary of Commerce, and the governor of Hawai‘i. I gave the president a picture of my dad that was taken in the Oval Office with his father [George H. W. Bush] when he was president. He took it and said, “Two fathers can be very proud of their two sons.” It was just so amazing.
So there you are at the White House for the second time in three months, standing next to the president with the worst environmental record in recent history. It must have seemed so surreal. We still haven’t recovered from this incredible decision. In the history books, George W. Bush will be referred to as the president who made the largest protected piece of ocean on the planet. It’s just shocking — but in a good way for once.
What was it about your film that appealed to him? Well, the film swayed him, there’s no question. It’s a cliché to say, but a picture is worth a thousand words. I think he saw that part of the planet that he didn’t know about. He told me during dinner, “You know, I am a man of the desert.” But we made him discover a little jewel of the planet that he didn’t know about.
Now that you have the president’s ear, can you please make him a film about global warming or the way wild bison are still mistreated at Yellowstone? Well, I’ve heard that several times now. I don’t know at this point. I want to make a film about the Amazon River. We did seven hours on the Amazon 25 years ago, with my dad. It’s time to do an update, which would be only two hours, but show what is happening in the Amazon Basin and its impact on the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf Stream, and outward almost to the U.K. And then the next year, I want to do a show on the Mississippi River, which we also did 25 years ago. A lot of the junk we find on the islands comes from us on the mainland. When someone in Topeka, Kansas, throws a cigarette lighter in the river, that’s going to end up in the ocean.
In any case, you’re the only environmentalist who has even come close to making anything happen with our present administration. What advice would you give the rest of us? I don’t pretend to have a secret solution. But the method of confrontation has to be left behind. That was the ’60s and ’70s. We can’t do that anymore. That was okay then, but not now. In terms of dealing with decision-makers — whether industry or government — we have to establish dialogue; we have to behave as human beings talking to other human beings. Those people have a family, they have children, they have obligations, they are the same as you and I. If you approach them in a non-confrontational way, chances are that you will have some success. And if your arguments are convincing enough, it’s going to work. You might not get exactly what you want, but at least you will be heard.
I have always operated that way, and that’s the difference between my dad and me, and Ocean Futures and the ones who break the law and damage equipment and so on. They will never be listened to. They will never sit down with the president. Those who are into patience and solutions will win. That’s my only recommendation, and I say this in a very humble way.
4·1·1 PBS is now airing Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Sharks at Risk and The Gray Whale Obstacle Course. Go to pbs.org/oceanadventures for show times.