Washington, D. C. February 2001

The Lost Islands

Is the United States quietly, mysteriously, skrinking?

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

It happens to everyone. People misplace things all the time—a wristwatch, a set of keys, the remote control for the VCR. That, after all, is part of being human. So it only stands to reason that the United States government, an organization composed largely of human beings, would once in a while misplace something or other. Carl Olson says that it has misplaced about 1.5 million square miles of territory.

Olson, a man whose flat midwestern accent and persistent geniality make him sound less like a political agitator than like a letter carrier in a 1950s television comedy, is the founder and chairman of State Department Watch, a small organization dedicated to, as he describes it, "following the bizarre behavior of the State Department." But his main concern seems to be this matter of the government's somehow "losing" a chunk of the planet the size of India and Pakistan put together. Specifically, Olson says that the government has, one way or another, let go of nearly two dozen American islands and reefs, allowing them to be claimed by other nations, including Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, and—worst of all, as far as Olson is concerned—Russia and Cuba. "Who won the Cold War anyway?" he asks.

Olson believes that the United States has lost three groups of islands: one off the coast of Alaska, one in the central Pacific, and one in the Caribbean. He asserts that some of the lost Alaskan islands—there are eight in all, including Wrangel Island, which he describes as being "the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined"—were acquired from Russia in the 1867 Alaska Purchase and that the rest were claimed for the United States upon their discovery, by various explorers, in 1881. Today, though, they are all claimed by Russia—something that is not contested by the United States. This bothers Olson. A lot. He filed several inquiries with the State Department and never, he says, received a satisfactory response. Then he got creative: he wrote to the Census Bureau and asked why these islands were not included in its decennial census. He found the bureau's response somewhat more satisfactory. "They're actually willing to take on the State Department," he says.

Yet Robert Marx, the chief of the Census Bureau's Geography Division and the man who is handling Olson's inquiries, regards the matter not with Olson's righteous indignation but with bemused trepidation. Marx did file inquiries on the Alaskan islands—not with the State Department but with the state of Alaska. Alaska, however, confirmed that the islands do belong to Russia. And Marx has dealt with State Department Watch before.

"This group raised a similar set of issues after the 1990 census," he explains. "We referred the matter to the State Department, and it confirmed the boundaries and said this was a state matter. And the state of Alaska confirmed the State Department's assessment. Alaska is perfectly comfortable with what it has, which, I guess, means there isn't any oil there."

"The boundary identified by the 1867 treaty," Marx adds, "says these islands were never included in the sale of Alaskan territory to the United States of America. They were always the property of Russia."

Olson disputes this. Three of the eight islands "are clearly part of the treaty," he says. "And the others couldn't have been part of the treaty, because they weren't discovered until 1881—and claimed for the United States." Marx argues that the fact that an American claimed an island for the United States doesn't necessarily make it U.S. territory, but Olson counters that discovering and claiming islands for the United States was the express purpose of the 1881 expeditions. As for Alaska's opinion, Olson points to a resolution passed in 1999 by the Alaska state legislature in which that body did claim sovereignty over the islands. "It doesn't carry any legal weight—it's just an expression of their opinion," Olson admits, "but that's a political issue. The legislature voted for it almost unanimously, but the governor and the attorney general are against it. They're the ones with the power to do something about this, but they're inclined to go along with whatever the State Department says."

The rest of the islands in question, those in the Caribbean and the Pacific, were either taken by the United States during the Spanish-American War, Olson says, or acquired under the Guano Islands Act of 1856—arguably the best-named piece of legislation in American history. The latter acquisitions, Olson explains, "contained vast bird-guano deposits, which are full of rich mineral compounds used in agricultural fertilizers." Also at stake are many thousands of square miles of rich fishery zones and repositories of natural resources—including, quite possibly, oil. But what galls Olson the most is several Caribbean islands that, he says, were taken by the military in 1898 and not ceded to the independent nation of Cuba upon its creation, in 1902, but that inexplicably seem to belong to Cuba now. "So Castro's got a bonus somehow," Olson says. "Air space, economic zones, fishing rights, mineral rights." Marx says that the Census Bureau has filed inquiries on those islands with the State Department.

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