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Palmyra Atoll (USA)


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Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra Atoll is an essentially unoccupied equatorial Northern Pacific atoll administered as an unorganized incorporated territory by the United States federal government. The variable temporary population of 4–20 'non-occupants' are essentially staff and scientists employed by various departments of the US government and The Nature Conservancy, as well as a rotating mix of Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium scholars pursuing research.
Palmyra is one of the Northern Line Islands (southeast of Kingman Reef and north of Kiribati Line Islands), located almost due south of the Hawaiian Islands, roughly halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. The atoll is 4.6 sq mi (12 km2), and it is located in the equatorial Northern Pacific Ocean. Its 9 mi (14 km) of coastline has one anchorage known as West Lagoon.
The atoll consists of an extensive reef, two shallow lagoons, and some 50 sand and reef-rock islets and bars covered with vegetation—mostly coconut trees, Scaevola, and tall Pisonia trees.
The islets of the atoll are all connected, except Sand Island and the two Home Islets in the west and Barren Island in the east. The largest island is Cooper Island in the north, followed by Kaula Island in the south. The northern arch of islets is formed by Strawn Island, Cooper Island, Aviation Island, Quail Island, Whippoorwill Island, followed in the east by Eastern Island, Papala Island, and Pelican Island, and in the south by Bird Island, Holei Island, Engineer Island, Tanager Island, Marine Island, Kaula Island, Paradise Island, and Home Island (clockwise). Average annual rainfall is approximately 175 in (4,400 mm) per year. Daytime temperatures average 85 °F (29 °C) year round.



Political status

Palmyra is an incorporated territory of the United States (the only such territory since 1959), meaning that it is subject to all provisions of the United States Constitution and is permanently under US sovereignty. However, it is also an unorganized territory as there is no Congressional act specifying how it should be governed; the only relevant law simply gives the President the discretion to administer the island as best seen fit (see Section 48 of the Hawaii Omnibus Act, Pub. L. 86–624, July 12, 1960, 74 Stat. 411, attached as a note to former sections 491 to 636 of Title 48, United States Code).
The issue of Palmyra's governance is generally a moot point, as there is no indigenous population remaining nor any reason to think that there will be one in the future. It is the only unorganized incorporated US territory. Cooper Island is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed as a nature reserve; the rest of the atoll is government land in the possession of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Since the territory has no local government, it is administered directly from Washington, D.C., by the Office of Insular Affairs, United States Department of the Interior. Defense is the responsibility of the United States.
For statistical purposes, Palmyra is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.

There is no current economic activity on the island. Many of the roads and causeways on the atoll were built during World War II. All are now unserviceable and overgrown. There is a roughly 2,200 yard (2,000 m) long, unpaved airstrip on Cooper Island (Palmyra (Cooper) Airport, ICAO code PLPA). Abandoned WWII–era structures are found on the island.
The atoll has been staffed by a group of scientists, Nature Conservancy staff and volunteers, and Fish & Wildlife representatives (totaling between four and 20 in all) for the last several years. A series of improvements in 2004 consisted of new two-person bungalows and showers for the inhabitants. Water is collected from the roof of a concrete building near the main living area of the scientists. Communal buildings of the settlement on the north side of Cooper Island (the only one on the atoll) consist of a common cooking/dining building adjacent to the atoll's only dock and a kayak and scuba equipment storage building next to the launch ramp.
Palmyra Atoll's location in the Pacific Ocean, where the southern and northern currents meet, means that its beaches are littered with trash and debris. Plastic mooring buoys are particularly plentiful on the beaches of Palmyra, as well as plastic bottles.


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Palmyra History

Palmyra was first sighted in 1798 by an American sea captain, Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut, while his ship the Betsy was in transit to Asia. According to various accounts, Fanning had awoken three times during the night before; the third time he took it as a premonition and ordered the first mate to heave to. In the morning the ship resumed its travel, but only went a mile before reaching the reef of Palmyra. Had the ship continued its course at night, the entire crew might have perished. On November 7, 1802 the first Western people landed when Captain Sawle of the United States ship Palmyra was wrecked on the atoll.
In 1859, Palmyra was claimed for the United States by Dr. Gerrit P. Judd of the brig Josephine, in accordance with the Guano Islands Act of 1856; however, there was no guano to be mined. On February 26, 1862, King Kamehameha IV commissioned Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson Beswick Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to take possession of the atoll and on April 15, 1862, it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Throughout the next century, ownership of the atoll passed through various hands. Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to Wilkinson on December 24, 1862 and it was owned by Kalama Wilkinson (Johnson's widow) until 1885. It was then divided between three heirs, two of whom immediately transferred their rights to William Luther Wilcox who, in turn, transferred them to the Pacific Navigation Company. In 1897, Pacific Navigation was liquidated, and its interests were sold first to William Ansel Kinney and then Fred Wunderburg. Wilkinson's third heir sold his rights to William Ringer.
In 1889, Commander Nichols of the British ship HMS Cormorant formally claimed Palmyra for the United Kingdom, unaware of the prior claim made by Hawaii. In 1898, Palmyra was annexed to the U.S. in conjunction with the overall annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, and on June 14, 1900 it became part of the new Territory of Hawaii. To end British claims, a second, separate act of annexation by the U.S. was made in 1911. This made Palmyra the only incorporated territory of the United States.
As the Panama Canal was about to open, the atoll's location became of strategic importance. The British had established a cable station for the All Red Line on nearby Fanning Island, and on February 21, 1912 the USS West Virginia arrived to formally reaffirm the U.S. claim on Palmyra.
In 1912, Henry Ernest Cooper (1857–1929) acquired William Ringer's rights to the atoll and, following a court challenge, became the sole owner of the atoll. He visited the island in July 1913 with scientists Charles Montague Cooke, Jr. and Joseph F. Rock who wrote a description of the atoll. Cooper sold the whole atoll except two minor islets to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo on August 19, 1922 for US$15,000. The couple established the Palmyra Copra Company to exploit coconuts growing on the atoll. Their three sons, including actor Leslie Vincent, continued as proprietors afterwards, except for a period of Navy administration during World War II.
In 1934, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra were placed under the Department of the Navy. The U.S. Navy took over the atoll for use as the Palmyra Island Naval Air Station on August 15, 1941. From November 1939 to 1947, the atoll had only permanently resident government representatives, styled "island commanders". Following WWII, much of the Naval Air Station was dismantled, with some materials piled and burned on the atoll, dumped into the lagoon, or as is the case of unexploded ordnances (UXOs) on some of the islets, left in place. After the war, the Fullard-Leo family fought for the return of Palmyra all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 1947. The Cooper family still owns two of the five Home Islands.
When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Palmyra was explicitly separated from the new state as a federal incorporated territory, administered by the Department of the Interior. In 1962, the U.S. Department of Defense used the atoll for an instrumentation site during high altitude atomic weapon tests over Johnston Atoll. A utility staff of about ten men managed the camps during the entire period. An average of about 40 people operated and serviced the instrumentation.
In December 2000, most of the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for coral reef conservation and research. In 2003, a scientific study was published regarding fossil coral washed up on Palmyra Atoll. The fossil coral was examined for evidence of the behavior of the El Niño effect on the tropical Pacific over the past 1,000 years. In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists joined with The Nature Conservancy to launch a new research station on the Palmyra Atoll in order to study global warming, disappearing coral reefs, invasive species and other global environmental threats.
The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument established on January 6, 2009 included Palmyra Atoll. The Secretary of the Interior has management responsibility, delegated to the Fish and Wildlife Service.


 

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