Saturday, February 20, 2010

Under the Pala Pala X

Under the Pala Pala X – ACTION ALERT: Fulfiling the Promises of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument

Island Decisions and Island Opinions are made Under the Pala Pala

The economic and social benefits promised by the designation of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument are in danger of being lost to Guam unless you do something about it.

Yes, YOU. If you are reading this and you want to see a Visitor’s Center built on Saipan instead of Guam, YOU need to get involved RIGHT NOW.

The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument belongs to the people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. 6000 people signed a petition in support and 500 students wrote letters to the president. Backing was so strong that two separate independent polls found 66% of registered voters supported its creation in the Fall of 2008. And it was people from the Commonwealth, the Governor, the First Lady, Agnes McPhetres, Ike Cabrera, and myself that sat in the White House as President George W. Bush created the monument on January 6, 2009.

On Guam there was no public discussion and only a single meeting with federal officials. Guam Governor Camacho, Representative Bordallo, and an assortment of Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council thugs also vehemently opposed the creation of the monument.

I know there are many people in the Commonwealth that consider the monument THEIR monument and I’m asking all you to take the time to help insure that YOUR monument remains YOUR monument.

The House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife has called for a hearing on the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. It is scheduled for this Thursday and is listed on the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee calendar.
The hearing will discuss two conflicting bills concerning the building of a visitors center that have been introduced by Representative Sablan of the Commonwealth and Representative Bordallo of Guam.

Sablan’s H.R. 3511 would “authorize the Secretary of the Interior to establish and operate a visitor facility to fulfill the purposes of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and for other purposes." It is called the “Marianas Trench Marine National Monument Visitor Facility Authorization Act of 2009." It calls for the building of a visitors center in the Commonwealth.

Bordallo’s H.R. 4493 would “provide for the enhancement of visitor services, fish and wildlife research, and marine and coastal resource management on Guam related to the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and for other purposes.” It is called the "Marianas Trench Marine National Monument Management Enhancement Act of 2010." It calls for educational facilities, a visitors center, federal programs, and other benefits to accrue to Guam and would alter the management scheme to include the Government of Guam.

If you want to see the benefits of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument accrue to Saipan and not lost to Guam, please take the time to contact the members of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife. You can send a letter to all the members, but sending a letter to Bordallo should suffice as long as you send a copy to Kilili. Your letter should specifically ask the Subcommittee to place the monument visitors center on Saipan.

A draft letter is posted at the bottom of this email. In case you want to write more or get a fuller understand of this complicated issue, I will provide some background information first.

The monument that was created by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009 consists of three units: an Islands Unit, a Volcanic Unit, and a Trench Unit. The Islands Unit is the monument that was being pushed by the Friends of the Monument and the more than 6000 Saipan, Tinian, and Rota residents who signed our petition. The Islands Unit consists of the submerged lands and water column around the islands of Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion out to about 50 miles past the mean high tide mark of each island. The Islands Unit restricts commercial fishing, but allows for many other types of fishing. The Trench Unit, comprised of the substrate of the entire Mariana Trench within the United States EEZ, and the Volcanic Unit, a collection of 21 incongruous active hydrothermal submarine volcanoes, are meaningless boundaries on a map that do not protect any marine life. They are not a marine protected area. They are simply a recognition of unique geological features and do not necessarily require any management, especially considering that modern technology barely allows us to even visit these places.

The Governor, the House Speaker, and the Senate President gave their stamp of approval for this version of the monument before the declaration and the reason we are about to lose the benefits of a monument to Guam is because back in 2008 when they were supposed to be focusing on bringing benefits of a monument to the CNMI, they were in fact busy trying to ensure that the monument would not inhibit their ability to sell off the Commonwealth’s natural resources some time in the future to the first “investor” that come along. Also, when it came time to sit down to talk with the White House, they were too proud to ask the advice of those who had experience and knowledge that would have helped them bring those benefits to the Commonwealth.

For this reason, they signed off on extending the Trench Unit of the monument into the federally controlled submerged lands close to Guam and giving management of the monument to the Department of the Interior (US Fish & Wild Service), rather than the Department of Commerce (NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries). By the time the Friends of the Monument saw the declaration, the ink was dry, the ceremony was over, and the story was already on the front page of USA Today and the Washington Post. There was nothing we could do to remove Guam from the equation.

Bush left Washington, DC two weeks later as the Blue President, having protected more of the Earth’s surface than any other man, and we now have to deal with the results of the inept “negotiating” of our leaders.

Guam, on the other hand, is likely to make out like a bandid from our leaders’ incompetence. Guam already has a National Wildlife Refuge and a USFWS office with staff. In all likelihood, any office space or staff for the monument will end up in Guam. NOAA Sanctuaries, on the other hand, has no presence in Guam. Had Governor Fitial listened to our suggestions, my suggestions, there would have been 100% chance of the offices and staff ending up on Saipan.

Now let’s pretend for a moment that Kilili succeeds in killing Bordallo’s bill and the monument offices and staff end up on Saipan. That would be great, but what happens during the next federal budget crisis? And what if the political party typically hostile to funding environmental measures takes back control of the United States Congress and cuts the budget of USFWS? We’ve already seen several federal programs on Saipan move staff to Guam. In the last few years we’ve lost the American Memorial National Park Superintendent, the USDA Rural Development Coordinator, and the Marianas Resource Conservation & Development Coordinator to Guam. I’m sure that trend will continue; policy makers in Washington, DC are prone to thinking that operating two offices out in the middle of nowhere is a waste of money when they could just as easily only operate one.

A visitors center is an entirely different deal from offices and staff. Offices can be leased and staff moved around without much trouble and, regrettably, we will probably be fighting for those federal jobs to be kept on Saipan on an annual basis until the end of time or until the CNMI becomes an independent nation, whichever comes first. However, if the visitors center gets built on Guam, it will be on Guam forever. That is why we need to ensure that it gets built on Saipan.

Bordallo’s H.R. 4493 would hasten this process of losing the benefits of a monument to Guam and we need to stop it in its tracks. Her bill would also add the Government of Guam to the management regime of the monument.

Guam has no grounds to be included in the management regime. While the Trench Unit does extend to some of the federally controlled submerged lands near Guam, not a drop of water and not a single fish is affected by the monument designation. Remember, the Trench Unit is not a marine protected area. Furthermore, modern technology barely allows humans to explore the trench, never mind manage it. For example, There have been more successful missions to visit the surface of Mars (7) than there have been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (3).

The Volcanic Unit is also unmanageable. The 21 active hydrothermal submarine volcanoes are incongruous postage stamp-sized dots spread throughout an area the size of Texas. While five of those volcanoes lie within the United States EEZ surrounding Guam, they have meaningless protections afforded them and do not require much management.

Only the Islands Unit has any meaningful environmental protections or any likelihood of enforcement and the entirety of the Islands Unit is within the United States EEZ surrounding the Commonwealth, hundreds of miles from Guam. The Islands Unit is also adjacent to the Commonwealth owned and controlled islands of Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion. Therefore, the Commonwealth, and not Guam, should be involved in its management.

Even considering all this, Bordallo could still make the changes she wants if we don’t stop her. Please take the time to draft a quick letter addressed to the members of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife and ask them to support a visitors center on Saipan.

And in case you were wondering, here is my full list of changes that would truly enhance the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument and bring to fruition the Vision set forth by the Friends of the Marianas Trench Monument:

1. Transfer management authority of the Islands Unit to the NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries, thus creating the Marianas Trench Marine National Sanctuary.
2. Extend the borders of the Islands Unit to the full extent of the United States EEZ surrounding the islands Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion.
3. Further restrict the allowable activities within the Islands Unit to only allow those activities furthering research, education, cultural preservation, and environmental protection.
4. Restrict allowable fishing to fishing for cultural indigenous purposes only.
5. Close the loopholes that allow for commercial fishing disguised as other types of fishing.

These changes would close some of those loopholes in the declaration now. They would also make those benefits I’ve discussed in great detail accrue to the Commonwealth, rather than being lost to Guam.

I also think that the best thing to do moving forward is to write off the Trench Unit and the Volcanic Unit and focus our efforts on our original science-backed proposal to protect the full United States EEZ around the islands of Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion, otherwise known as the Islands Unit. Adding environmental protections to the Trench Unit or the Volcanic Unit would just give Guam more reason to be involved.

Thanks again for all you do. I hope you can help. The draft letter is posted below. I recommend addressing your letter to Bordallo because she is the Chair of the subcommittee, but I’d also send a copy to Kilili’s office.:

Representative Madeleine Z Bordallo
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans
427 Cannon HOB
Washington, DC 20515


Dear Representative Bordallo,

My name is [insert your name] and I live in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. [Please give some information about your role in the creation of the monument. Did you sign a petition? Write a letter to the President? A letter to the editor?]

I am writing to you today to ask you to support H.R. 3511, which would help fulfill the promises made by the Bush Administration and the federal government when the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument was designated on January, 6, 2009.

[You could include something about your hopes for the monument here]

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter,


[Your name]


Under the Pala Pala is the regular commentary of environmentalist and erstwhile politician Angelo O’Connor Villagomez. Pala pala is the Chamorro word for an outdoor shelter traditionally made of wood and thatch used for staying out of the sun, cooking, eating, drinking, singing, and talking. Sign up to subscribe via email at

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