MIDWAY ATOLL CLOSING OFF TOURS

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By Jan TenBruggencate Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (January 28, 2002 – Honolulu Advertiser)---Operations at Midway Atoll have been closed following a weekend decision by Midway Phoenix Corp. to end its agreement to operate the airport, visitor accommodations, tours and other functions at the wildlife refuge.

Neither the Fish and Wildlife Service nor Midway Phoenix has made a public announcement of the withdrawal, but people close to the operation say the decision was made over the weekend.

"We don't have anything in writing yet, but we understand they have verbally told one of the people in the (Secretary of the Interior's) office," said Barbara Maxfield, of the Fish and Wildlife Service Honolulu office.

In an email message set to people associated with the company, Midway Phoenix Island Manager Don Pressnall described the closing process.

"During the month of February, infrastructure will be reduced and power and communications to several parts of the island will be turned off. By March 1, operations will cease," Presnall wrote.

In his statement, Pressnall blamed the Fish and Wildlife Service for the company's decision to close.

"A total lack of flexibility or willingness on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service to make this project work has resulted in an atmosphere where any expectation of reasonable financial return is no longer possible," he wrote.

One immediate issue, cited by both Maxfield and Midway officials, is that there is a limited supply of fuel on the island and no plan for resupply. The fuel is needed in part to run generators that keep electricity available. One source said there is an eight-week supply remaining.

Aloha Airlines, which has run weekly flights from Honolulu to Midway since April 29, 1998, received notice this morning (Monday28) that Midway Phoenix was stopping the flights.

"We won't be running any more flights," said Aloha spokesman Stu Glauberman.

Midway Phoenix staffers said they are being ordered to close up the facility and prepare for flying out March 2. Glauberman confirmed that Aloha has been asked to run a flight that date.

"This is a request for a March 2 flight to bring back some people. We won't be taking anyone over," he said.

Rick Gaffney, whose Destination Pacific books fishing and diving tours at Midway, said Midway Phoenix has stopped taking bookings. He expects an immediate and severe impact on his business.

"We were going to begin bird watching tours this year. Midway is our primary destination, so the impact on us will be substantial," he said.

Midway is 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. It is one of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, near the end of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Only Kure Atoll, a state wildlife refuge, is farther from the main islands.

Midway Phoenix was the successful bidder for a contract to run the atoll after the Navy turned it over to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The service was faced with the need to manage the giant bird, sea turtle and Hawaiian monk seal nesting beaches there, but without the funding required to manage such a distant facility.

It arranged for the contractor to keep the old military airfield open, to keep power and communications running, and to convert old barracks into visitor lodging. But while it has been an excellent fishing, diving and bird watching site, and one visited by World War II history buffs, the island has not generated the volume of visitor traffic that both the Fish and Wildlife Service and Midway Phoenix had hoped.

Gaffney said that during the peak summer season, the Aloha Airlines weekly flights to the island often held 45 to 60 people, and in winter, the numbers were lower. Aloha itself would not confirm passenger counts.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser. 

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