Clinton Administration Fails to Honor the Guano Act of 1856 (Austin American-Statesman) : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

This is from Today's Austin American-Statesman (

Salvager fighting U.S. for bird droppings

By Leah Quin American-Statesman Staff Tuesday, February 29, 2000

In the appropriately named hamlet of Driftwood, on the pastured edge of the Hill Country, Bill Warren dreams of the sea.

Or rather, he dreams of the money he could be making from the sea, from the treasures that lie hidden underneath and those lesser known that jut from the waves of the Caribbean.

If only the federal government hadn't interfered, Warren complained, he might be rich right now -- and that much closer to realizing his aspirations of owning a castle and running for U. S. president.

"I know people think I'm crazy," Warren said. "But I'm a normal guy. I'm just outspoken. I talk about my ideas and aspirations. Everyone else just covers up."

Two months ago, Warren and his wife, Shari, settled into a log cabin on a 6-acre ranch in Hays County, the better to plan his many enterprises and fight his courtroom battle against the United States of America. At stake is a man's right to ownership, the sovereignty of this country and the ability to get rich by mining and selling guano.

That's not a misprint. Guano, or bird droppings, is the only natural resource on Navassa, the tiny Caribbean island Warren has tried to claim for his own.

In doing so, he's become a surprise third party in a long-simmering feud between the United States and Haiti over Navassa, a rocky outcropping 40 miles off Haiti's shore that is home only to an abandoned lighthouse and a few million cormorants, pelicans, boobies and other seabirds. Despite its obscure location, the 3.2-square-mile isle has a fascinating, bloody history -- including slave labor, insurrection and an ax murder -- and may have a future as a protected ecological habitat.

If it doesn't start a war first.

"I got myself stuck in the middle of an international situation," said Warren, a blue-eyed California native who at "53 or 54" holds a varied resume, including gospel singer, sea urchin diver, television producer and a drapery-shop owner who claimed Bill Cosby among his customers.

"I just want to be rich," Warren said. "I just want to be president, and one of the quickest ways to do that is through guano mining."

Rewind 150 years. U.S. expansionism is becoming the mantra of the latter half of the 19th century. And seabird fertilizer is working miracles on farmers' fields in the American Midwest.

Presto: Congress enacts the Guano Act of 1856, in which any American citizen who wishes to harvest bird manure from an unclaimed and uninhabited island can get permission from the U.S. president to take ownership. Soon, several designated "guano islands" dot the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. Navassa is among them.

But then some hotshot develops chemical fertilizer. Guano becomes a punch line, and the act that bears its name is forgotten.

Fast-forward to 1996, when Warren, then a San Diego-based diver and shipwreck salvager, came across the Guano Act in a law library. Because he was already searching for a way to stake a claim to Navassa, which he says is surrounded by sunken ships, he knew he had struck legal gold.

He retailored his ambitions, finding a market for guano fertilizer among organic gardeners. At $5 a pound, Navassa's estimated 800,000 tons of bird dung adds up to -- well, quite a bit for a man who said he never wanted a simple 8-to-5 job.

"That island has cliffs 60 feet high of solid bird doo-doo," Warren said excitedly.

He filed his guano claim with the U.S. State Department in September 1996, the same month the Coast Guard closed down the island's forlorn lighthouse. In March 1997, his application was rejected for numerous reasons, including the area's inhospitable environment.

The letter's author also pointed out that Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior, had assumed responsibility for the island in January 1997 to further "U.S. sovereignty over Navassa" and to protect its isolated environment.

Warren cried foul, saying the federal government never showed any interest in Navassa until he filed his claim. He sued the United States for $11.6 million in lost potential revenue.

He also shored up his claim to the island by tracking down two heirs of the shareholders of the Navassa Phosphate Co., which mined guano there for nearly 40 years, weathering a slave rebellion that led to murder trials in the United States, according to the 1995 book "The Great Guano Rush."

Warren bought the rights to Navassa from both heirs in exchange for a percentage of future guano profits.

By the time the case got to U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 16, Warren's damage estimate was $50 million.

"It's a nice round figure," said Gene Bechtel, Warren's lawyer in Washington, D.C. Patrick Clary, a Las Vegas attorney who also represents Warren, said the amount is based on a reasonable assessment of guano moolah.

"Organic fertilizer is the purest, best form of fertilizer," Clary said. "And this is a whole island of fertilizer. And anyway, your own island in the Caribbean is not a worthless thing."

But after two hours of arguments, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ruled in favor of the United States, dismissing Warren's ownership claim because the statute of limitations for Navassa's heirs to claim the island ran out decades ago.

"It is a U.S. property, administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service," said Stephanie Hanna, spokeswoman for the Interior Department. "We're not giving it away."

American biologists visited Navassa in 1998 to study its unique ecology, angering Haitians who continue to insist the island was theirs long before the Guano Act. Though Haitian fishermen may camp overnight on the island, American citizens should seek permission before visiting, Hanna said, though there probably won't be a rush of applicants.

"There's no water and a lot of scorpions, so it's not quite at the top of the list for summer camping experiences," Hanna said.

But Warren's suit -- which a Justice Department spokeswoman called unprecedented -- isn't over. He plans to appeal Friedman's decision and perhaps pursue the $50 million claim in another court.

His crusade has attracted the attention of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, who has asked for congressional hearings on Warren's claim to Navassa.

"This would seem to be sort of a bizarre fringe issue," said Eric Dondero, Paul's assistant in Freeport. "But it raises much broader issues of maritime boundaries and fishing rights."

Warren, meanwhile, is planning other enterprises, including raising Charles I's sunken treasure ship from the bottom of the Firth of Forth, a broad river in Scotland. He may move there, he said, which is why he still hasn't unpacked boxes at his Driftwood home.

It's hard not to be bitter, Warren said, remembering President Clinton's exhortation that citizens be creative in developing jobs for the new economy.

"Bull crap, or bird crap, as I like to say," Warren said. "Here's what the president did: He took away my dreams of employing people and supplying good-quality fertilizer."

You may contact Leah Quin at or 445-3621.

-- Rick (, February 29, 2000


Ain't that some s__t?!

-- bz (, February 29, 2000.

"I just want to be rich," Warren said. "I just want to be president, and one of the quickest ways to do that is through guano mining."

.....sigh..... Ain't it the truth.....

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), February 29, 2000.

Notice that the adminstration "claimed" the island rather quickly - right after attention was raised?

Hi sproblems was simplythat he didn't pay the Clintons' the Indonesian coal owners did - right before Clinton claimed a good bit of the clean-burning coal in the west.

No authority, no law - just another executive order.....

"Kinda of the land."

-- Robert A. Cook, PE (Marietta, GA) (, February 29, 2000.

Funny. Hope he collects, but with this octopussy government, I doubet it.

There is an island, Nahru, in the Pacific. The island has the largest per capita income in the world, and the several hundred islanders have (or had, in the 1970s when I was there) their own airline (Air Nahru, naturally). Nahru is also nearly 100% bird droppings, and the enterprising islanders sold their country to Australia. Right, Oz has been buying the island, shovel full by shovel full, as fertilizer. The poor Nahru natives no longer own their small island -- they were coming close to owning Australia, though.

-- rocky (rknolls@no.spam), February 29, 2000.

I'm Here, I'm There, Thanks, LMAO!!!

-- canthappen (, February 29, 2000.

Imagine, Clinton and honor in the same sentence.

-- JB (, February 29, 2000.

"I just want to be rich," Warren said. "I just want to be president, and one of the quickest ways to do that is through guano mining." .....sigh..... Ain't it the truth.....

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), February 29, 2000.


-- Rick (, February 29, 2000.

I don't know if this person has a leg to stand on...I wish him luck.

What I do know in that this Navassa Island was mentioned as an uninhabited Island possession of the United States (and, yes, covered with guano!) in an article which appeared in The Economist

published in London in the mid 1980's. The article was about the remaining possessions from America's Imperial past, such as it was.

-- K. Stevens (kstevens@ It ALL went away last month .com), February 29, 2000.

Sorry about that!

-- K. Stevens (kstevens@ I screwed, February 29, 2000.

This fellow should come to DC...he'd find more "guano" than he'd know what to do with...and all of it on Capitol Hill and in the Oval Office...LOL.

-- Elaine Seavey (, February 29, 2000.

But the current administration is not pro-business. Now, if he wanted a subsidy for not mining guano...

-- Mad Monk (, February 29, 2000.

If the guy wants to mine s**t, he doesn't have to go to some foreign island to do it, why can't he just hope a plane to DC and make his fortune.......

This is too funny!

-- nobody (, February 29, 2000.

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