Entrepreneur Seeks Rights to Guano-Rich Island

By Andrew Shulman, Washington Times, August 6, 1998, p. A10

A bitter fight to excavate bird dung on a tiny uninhabited Caribbean island may be coming to an end with the discovery the obscure U.S. territory of rare plants and a bird thought to be extinct.

Entrepreneur Bill Warren claims that the Department of the Interior has been trying to stop him from mining guano, which is used as fertilizer, on Navassa, an island about nine times larger than the Mall in Washington.

Mr. Warren is staking his claim to the lucrative petrified bird droppings under the little-known Guano Act of 1856, which provides that any uninhabited land containing guano and not under the control of another nation may be claimed in the name of the United States.

He sued Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright after the federal government refused to set a bond price for the purchase of the island located 50 miles west of Haiti in the Greater Antilles. Mr. Warren said Sens. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, suggested that he sue to compel the government to let him mine guano.

But Mr. Warren may encounter a more slippery legal slope if the Interior Department declares the island off-limits due to environmental concerns.

The Center for Marine Conservation, along with the Interior Department and a host of other groups, finished a survey last week that found numerous rare plants and the Navassa ground dove, previously believed to be extinct. Among their other discoveries so far is a spectacular reef, apparently in pristine condition, that lies to the northeast of the island.

"We are delighted," said David North, public affairs officer for the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs.

Mr. Warren, of Alpine, Calif., is suspicious of the timing of the government's discovery.

"In a way I am kind of happy that they did that because it shows how greedy the government is and ridiculous, caring more about some plants... than people having jobs and good fertilizer for the things we eat," he said.

Mr. North said the Interior Department visited the island, not studied by scientists since the 1930s, to "see what it had."

Roger McManus, president of CMC, said the plan to survey the island was already in the works when Mr. Warren filed his lawsuit. "We were looking into the region because we do a lot of joint international, expeditionary and museum work in the northern Caribbean," Mr. McManus said.

The United States claimed Navassa in 1857. The Navassa Phosphate Co. Mined the island until it abandoned the territory after a slave revolt in 1898. The Coast Guard maintained an unmanned lighthouse there until 1996. Then the Interior Department assumed responsibility.

To support his argument that the island is open to property claims, Mr. Warren cites the case of W.S. Carter, who asked the State Department for permission to buy Navassa in 1905. The department said at that time it "possessed no territorial sovereignty" over the land.

"I think it actually adds more fuel to the fire," Mr. Warren said.

The two sides do agree there's guano in them thar' rocks.

"We found a book at William and Mary [College] called My Memoirs of Navassa,' written by the Navassa Phosphate Company's chief geologist," Mr. Warren said. "In 1886 he wrote about the island and its ecology and its bird guano. ...he said the entire island is solid sea-bird guano."

"I will not be stopped and I believe I will win island ownership," Mr. Warren said.


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