WASHINGTON Aug. 14 (States) -- Attention divers! Are you looking for uncrowded, unspoiled coral reefs with a rainbow of vibrant colors alive with a diversity of plant and animal life?

A team of scientists from the Center for Marine Conservation has found such a place in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, between Haiti and Jamaica.

But there's a catch. The reefs surrounding tiny, uninhabited Navassa Island, two square miles of rocky terrain pockmarked by years of mining operations, are so pristine that U.S. officials are determined to limit public access, lest the destruction of sensitive reefs in other parts of the region and elsewhere be repeated.

"We have a melancholy record worldwide of coral reef history," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Friday during a news conference unveiling the research team's preliminary findings. "We must try to prevent ...degradation and misuse."

Navassa Island, located 40 miles west of Haiti in the Greater Antilles, has been a U.S. possession since 1857. It was mined for guano, bird dung used in fertilizer, from about that time until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Coast Guard built a lighthouse there in 1916, to warn eastbound ships from the Panama Canal away from the island. But the lighthouse eventually was automated, and the Coast Guard turned over the island's jurisdiction to the Interior Department two years ago.

The recent resurgence in popularity of organic fertilizer has renewed interest in Navassa Island as a potential moneymaker.

Entrepreneur and sunken-treasure hunter Bill Warren of California has put in a claim on the island, based on the U.S. Guano Islands Act of 1856. Congress passed the law to promote competition with Peruvian guano miners by encouraging Americans to put down stakes in uninhabited, guano-covered islands.

But the federal government is contesting Warren's right to the island. He has taken his claim to U.S.District Court in Washington, where the case is pending.

While the CMC maintains it began putting together its expedition to Navassa Island before Warren filed the lawsuit, the research team has documented a case for preserving the island from commercial or industrial development.

Michael Smith, a senior research scientist at the CMC and leader of the expedition's land team, said preliminary findings from the recent two-week trip indicate 250 plant and animal species not yet known to science. An estimated 10 percent to 18 percent of those new species are unique to Navassa Island, he said. "What we found exceeded all of our expectations," said Roger McManus, the CMC's president.

Nina Young, the research scientist who led the marine portion of the expedition, described the coral reefs surrounding the island as the most spectacular in the Caribbean. "It's like looking into an aquarium," she said. "It's what aquariums aspire to imitate when they display coral reefs."

A study released in June warned that the reefs encircling the U.S. Virgin Islands are in danger of becoming "dead zones" because of pollution caused by overdevelopment and from overfishing. But due to Navassa Island's remote location and rocky, inhospitable shoreline, its surrounding coral reefs have barely been touched by pollution or disease, Young said.

Babbitt seems determined to keep it this way. He foresees no change in the near future to the government policy prohibiting visitor access to the island without the Interior Department's permission. "When you have a public asset that has gained public attention, there will be demands for use," he said. "(But) this does not seem to be an appropriate place for a Hilton Hotel. ... Its future status ought to be driven in a way that protects it."


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Bob Corbett