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.

But the State Department is a huge and labyrinthine organization, and finding someone there who has answers to offer—let alone getting that someone to actually offer them—is a tricky process. Marx sent his inquiries to William B. Wood, who heads the department's Office of the Geographer and Global Issues. Wood passed them on to a staffer, Leo Dillon, who is quick to state that he cannot state very much. "Our office can only confirm that according to our records, the U.S. has no claims to any of those islands," Dillon says. Besides, he adds, "the guano has been taken from those islands," although he then admits he's not sure that's actually true. However, he does acknowledge that there are two Caribbean islands—Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo—to which the United States has not repudiated its claim, even though other countries claim them as well. But he considers Olson's other arguments ludicrous; and anyway, Dillon says, "we deal with sovereignty from the current, not the historical, perspective." These were questions for the State Department's legal division, and he has already forwarded Marx's inquiries to that office.

The issue of the Caribbean islands was handed over to Paolo Di Rosa, at the State Department's legal office for Western Hemisphere affairs. Di Rosa acknowledges only that he has indeed been assigned to handle the matter and that "different islands are in a different status." Asked about Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo, he responds cryptically: "Some of these islands or banks or whatever, we have asserted sovereignty over in various international contexts, even in the face of competing claims from other countries, and we consider our claims superior." He adds, "Some of the islands, we just have no idea where they are; they don't appear on our geographers' maps—we don't know anything about them."

Di Rosa's counterpart at the legal office for East Asian and Pacific affairs, James Hergen, is even less specific regarding the status of the Pacific islands: "I have no position on it at all," he states cheerfully. He has passed Olson's inquiries on to the governments of Kiribati and the Cook Islands, he says, but "I'm still waiting to hear back." The situation reminds him vaguely of the flap over the Alaskan islands following the 1990 census. "I don't remember all that much about it," he says, "but the thing that struck me is that it took up a tremendous amount of time—and taxpayers' money."

Hergen isn't really angry about it, though; merely resigned and a bit leery. "Every once in a while we get into these island-type stories," he muses, "and they're fun, but they're kind of spooky." Spooky? "I don't even know if these islands are above ground or populated or what," he explains. "Do you know?"

It's a good question, and one that even Carl Olson admits he cannot answer. If, as many suspect, most or even all of these islands are uninhabited and uninhabitable (if, indeed, some of them are little more than sandbars), then the most disinterested party in the whole affair, the Census Bureau, has no one to count and no reason to press its inquiries further.

But that will not stop Carl Olson from continuing to press his. Whether or not these islands are populated or even hospitable to human habitation is beside the point, in his view. "We think it's an abuse of power by the State Department," he declares. "The public didn't know anything about this. United States territory cannot be sold or given away to another country without a formal treaty, ratified by Congress, and there was none for any of these islands. How could numerous islands just willy-nilly float off to another country without a treaty? It seems kind of suspect."