What kind of a country strives hard to acquire territory only to deny its people the full splendor of the spoils? Among many other countries who often styled themselves “empires” and acquired far-flung islands across the ocean, the United States, that’s who. Specifically I’d like to offer some thoughts on some of America’s most curious territories, the “United States Minor Outlying Islands”.
As its name suggests, this group of territories is small in area, a combined 13 square miles or so depending on how you count it (lagoons and coral reefs complicate things). These islands are all uninhabited except for temporarily stationed government personnel, and quite a few of them don’t even have that much, rendering them uninhabited.
Specifically, there are nine such territories: Wake Island, Midway Atoll, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, and Navassa Island; all but the last are in the Pacific Ocean, with Navassa Island located in the Caribbean Sea between Jamaica and Haiti. Some American veterans might find a few of these names familiar, as they hosted military bases, and of course everyone who knows anything about the Pacific Theater of World War II has heard of the Midway Islands.
As the only foothold the United States have in many regions, one might think establishing an American presence that permits the people the full use and enjoyment of a whole part of their country would be considered important, but the most that’s been done to them is building military bases, followed by turning them all into wildlife refuges, apparently for no other reason than not knowing what else to do with them.
A pleasant exception to this bleak picture came in (when else?) the 1930s when the “American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project” was launched, sending colonists to occupy Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands, but World War II apparently prompted them to forget the whole thing. This ran concurrently with the British “Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme” in their part of the same island chain, which Wikipedia (sadly) describes as “the last attempt at human colonisation within the British Empire.”
A striking fact about these islands is that they’re located in the middle of a beautiful ocean, surrounded by mile upon mile of tropical reefs ringing mile upon mile of sandy beaches, and feature a tropical climate. All of these are quite desirable characteristics by the early 21st century for tourists and short and long term residents alike. Why should this natural beauty be squandered?
Toward dreamy Resort Colonies
So recently I have daydreamed about the possibility of developing these places into full-blown resort regions for tourists. Cover the seas next to their coral reefs with underwater hotels akin to those seen in the Maldives, so people can see all this wildlife the Pacific remote islands harbor from the comfort of their own rooms; imagine the guests being able to strap on scuba gear and swim with the fish as the sunlight ripples through the shallow sea illuminating all manner of colorful tropical species.
The lands in my dream will be covered with hotels and vacation rentals, but not the seedy concrete towers parts of the Florida coast offer; no, these hotels will be as beautiful as they are ornate, hewn out of the finest woods and at least looking like they are made from materials local to the South Pacific, seeking to add to the natural beauty of the region, not erect a middle finger to it.
The land masses of these islands would be crossed by meandering pathways permitting walking, bicycling, and light motorized vehicles for recreational and A-to-B transportation between the buildings. The remainder of these islands would be given over to botanical gardens, cultivated for beauty and showcasing only plants native to each island.
Restore the Ecology!
As part of my proposed project whatever resources may be necessary would be devoted to achieving a complete ecological restoration of all these islands as quickly as possible before the development phase begins. Construction of all the facilities and infrastructure would employ a minimal impact approach, without things like cutting down trees and dredging up huge piles of dirt everywhere.
Wake, Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra Islands in particular have been severely altered by the former military presence; as part of this program all the land reclamation and dredging of the reefs and lagoons would be reversed, the topography of these islands returned to their natural state, all buildings, roadways, and runways erased as if they never existed.
Nuclear Power and Seaplane Transportation
Once all this infrastructure is built up, it’s time to let the party begin by admitting visitors to these resort hotel and rental facilities. Transportation could easily be provided by ship, by VTOL aircraft, or by seaplane. Personally I prefer the latter option, as already by the 1930s “flying boats” were making such islands accessible for large numbers of passengers, and modern versions boast comparable performance to the aircraft taken to tropical resort destinations today.
Power is often a problem in these remote regions today, but that’s very easily remedied by simply burying small nuclear reactors deep in the sand or under the sea floor where their radiation will attenuate to levels harmless to people and wildlife; such reactors could also easily provide nuclear desalination for those islands where catching rainwater doesn’t provide enough freshwater.
A Vision for the Workers
Ecological restoration means the environment is better off in these places than today even with the people around; sure, invasive species will inevitably be introduced by such masses of people, but new shock-troop units of the Fish and Wildlife Service could be formed to suppress any flora or fauna that shouldn’t be there before it gets out of hand. I personally would recommend the Fish and Wildlife Service get spiffy uniforms.
Ditto for all the other workers in these territories, especially those in charge of greeting the visitors. In particular such a setting would be ideal for introducing foreigners and (potential or actual) immigrants to the greatness of America. Imagine if at the flying boat dock there are no customs officers, no border guards, and no airport-security goons, only beautiful be-leied native Hawaiian girls with flowers in their hair and smiles on their faces, telling you “Welcome to America!” as they hand you a flower and booklets telling you everything the island and the United States have to offer.
Population in the new American Paradises
So how many people can live in these bits of paradise? Let’s take the 13 square mile figure for now. The densest neighborhoods in Paris, not exactly a city known for tall buildings, top out at perhaps 100,000 people per square mile. This implies that perhaps 1.3 million people could fit in these islands! This figure, however, leaves no room for nature, though if the tower-in-the-park method is used the people and the nature might coexist surprisingly comfortably.
Further swelling the population potential is the underwater hotels of the coral reefs, which can spread out over a much wider area, though the number of stories would be somewhat limited by the shallow water depth. Since the reef area is multiples of the land area this should at least double the potential population, possibly quintuple it. This implies 2.6 to 6.5 million people at maximum before we subtract the space we need to devote to nature.
Taking nature into account I would guess a high maximum of 1 million could be accommodated on these islands without compromising their character too much.
A bright yet realistic Future
Now, even with a concerted governmental effort will they ever reach anywhere near 1 million? Unless people are outright paid large sums to vacation or live there, probably not, as while they’re good vacation spots the fact is they’re not exactly the best; why crowd into the Minor Outlying Islands when you can spread out on Hawaii, for example?
Something like 10,000, however, would be quite realistic, even conservative, given the territory involved, and even that would represent a major advance in Americans’ use and enjoyment of their own country.
The prospect of a million people living in this region, while perhaps far-fetched, raises an interesting question: that of their development to statehood. The Minor Outlying Islands would make for a strange and sprawling state, with an exclave in the Caribbean, and even its contiguous portion spread across the Pacific, but nevertheless it could adopt a very decentralized federal structure with each of the nine islands being co-sovereign with the state government. Even more wildly, each island could be admitted separately as a state.
Bring Back the Frontier Spirit!
Colonization projects resulting in statehood were during the age of the frontier the bread and butter of American life, yet by 2012 when Newt Gingrich brought up the possibility that an American colony on the Moon should be admitted as a state when it reached a population of 13,000, a “Northwest Ordinance for Space” (which he apparently first proposed as a young Congressmen in 1981), he was practically laughed out of the room. I for one find latter-day Americans’ lack of vision disturbing.
Admitting nine new very small states might make American politics, particularly the Senate where each state gets two members, even more imbalanced than it already is, but that could easily be offset by the big states splitting or spinning off their most major cities (e.g. New York, Chicago) into their own states, which honestly should happen anyway for a variety of reasons.
While I’m sure it would be viable if the United States government ever attempted it, all this is only a daydream on my part, filed away under “cool things I could include in the worldbuilding for my alternate-history science-fiction novels”, but I can’t help but wonder: why can’t our latter-day “nationalists” do something like this that’s actually visionary and useful, something to augment national greatness that the people who actually live and visit this vaunted “nation” of theirs will actually like, instead of siccing thugs on foreigners and jacking up prices at the supermarket, which seems to be the extent of their vision when they don’t just wander off into outright nanny-statism?
Sure, Donald Trump floated the idea of the United States buying Greenland, but why resort to such drastic measures when there is already plenty of territory ripe for greatness? Reach for the vision, grab hold of the aspiration, and build something beyond the pioneer forefathers’ wildest dreams!