Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Mariana Trench Update: August 2010

About six months ago I coordinated a letter writing campaign to build support for building a Mariana Trench Eco-Discovery Center on Saipan. A hearing was scheduled to take place in Washington, DC and we needed letters in support of putting the visitors center on Saipan (or Tinian or Rota).

That effort was ultimately a waste of time, because competing bills that would have placed the visitors center on Guam and Saipan were eventually pulled by their respective sponsors.

Oh well. The fight to fulfill the promises of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument continues. Last night I received the following email:
Hi Angelo:

I just received a note from Lois Capps, responding to my letter of many months ago during our letter writing campaign on the Trench bill. She is apparently Co-Sponsor of HR 3511. I had also written to her that I thought her husband's family and mine are related. She responded to that as well.

Where are we now with the thing and the Guam conflict?

I will write to her. What can I say to be helpful and effective and sound like I know what I'm talking about! :-)

I hope all is well with you. We are missing the CNMI.
I sent an update to this concerned citizen and I want to share my response with the readers of the Saipan Blog. Here is my response:
The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument protects some of the waters surrounding the three most northern islands in the Marianas archipelago Uracas, Maug and Asuncion. An area about the size of Maryland and Delaware bans the practice of commercial fishing, but other types of allowable fishing are yet to be defined in this area. The monument also recognizes the Mariana Trench, a geological feature as long as the West Coast, but fails to protect any of the ocean or ocean life sitting on top of it.

When James Connaughton, who was President Bush's Chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) (there is a new Chairman, just like there are new heads of every Cabinet department), talked to the leaders of the CNMI in 2008 and early 2009, he promised (1) world wide attention and media, (2) federal funding for jobs and enforcement, and (3) a visitors center. So far the media attention is the only promise that has been kept, mostly because of the work of the Pew Environment Group (and me).

The monument as it stands today is nothing more than a paper park. The protections are there on paper, but nothing has really changed from the pre-declaration days. There have been no increased patrols, no management structure put in place, and not one single federally funded job created. Much of this is probably due to the economic disaster left by Bush, but a lot has to do with the fact that US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the manager, when it would be more appropriate for NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries or the National Park Service to be the manager (I will explain this).

For your discussion with the Representative, I would ask that you focus on the building of a visitors center. The CNMI economy is in free fall and the only viable economic activity other than federal funding is tourism. As the economy has crashed, more and more federal funding has been needed to keep the islands afloat. A visitors center would lead to more tourism, and would reduce the need for federal funding. Therefore, an investment now would probably lead to overall federal savings down the road. That alone is a legitimate reason for building a visitors center, never mind that the United States government promised the people of the CNMI they would build one.

About $1/4 million in funding to plan a visitors center was granted last year and Representative Sablan has requested an additional $1/2 million to move the process along. That first $1/4 million was granted to the CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources (DLNR), which is a black hole of CNMI corruption and mismanagement. I don't expect any products to come of that money. The recent $1/2 million earmark has made it out of committee, but has yet to be voted on by the full US House. Once it passes the House, it still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the President before the money is available. This money, if approved, would go to USFWS. Keeping the money with the federal government is a good thing, but a lot more money is needed to actually build the visitors center once there is a plan for it.

Two years have passed since the monument was declared and one of the reasons things are going so slowly is because the government agency in charge is the USFWS. USFWS is woefully underfunded every year and has their own set of priorities for building visitors centers. Only about 10% of the 500 or so USFWS managed National Wildlife Refuges have visitors centers and CNMI, home of the newest protected area they manage, is at the bottom of their priority list. Compare this to National Parks (NPS) and NOAA Sanctuaries, nearly all of which have visitors centers.

On another level, USFWS is usually charged with managing, you guessed it, fish and wildlife. The areas they manage, the National Wildlife Refuges, mostly exist because they contain important species of (mostly freshwater) fish and wildlife. On the other hand, National Parks tend to manage landscapes and NOAA Sanctuaries tend to manage oceans. USFWS also doesn't have much experience in managing marine (ocean) species, while NOAA does. The Trench Unit qualifies as a landscape, since it does not protect the ocean or ocean life, so should be managed by National Parks. The Islands Unit, the waters around the three islands, should be managed by NOAA, the government agency that has experience in managing ocean areas.

Many people on Saipan want the Secretary of Interior to issue an order transferring jurisdiction from USFWS to NPS or for the US Congress to amend the monument declaration to transfer jurisdiction from Interior (USFWS) to Commerce (NOAA Sanctuaries). A new manager would make a visitors center more likely, never mind leading to an increase in other programs, such as enforcement and education dollars. Neither of these suggestions has been entertained for various reasons.

Now the reason I initially wrote to you was because Guam's Representative to Congress, Madeleine Bordallo, was making a play to have the monument's visitors center placed on Guam. I think she was hoping that nobody on Saipan would notice, but I helped whip up a hornet's nest of protest and the result was a Congressional hearing last February. Testimony from the governors of Guam and CNMI were taken, along with a prominent Smithsonian scientist and the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument (Agnes McPhetres traveled to DC to testify in person).

The result of the hearing was a big fat zero. A few weeks after the hearing, both Representative Sablan and Representative Bordallo pulled their respective bills granting visitors centers to their respective districts because republicans were critical of the democrat's spending.

That brings us to today. CNMI DLNR is supposedly drafting plans for a visitors center as I write this (I am not holding my breath). There is also a $1/2 million earmark that might pass that could move the planning process along. That still does not give CNMI money to actually build a visitors center or staff a visitors center or provide educational materials.

I've already mentioned that a visitors center could be a cornerstone of a new ecotourism industry in the CNMI, but building a visitors center on Saipan is also critical to the eventual effective management of the monument. The American citizens living in the CNMI are the people living closest to the monument. They come into daily contact with our ocean. They need exposure to environment educational, probably more than the Americans living in the mainland.

I know this is a lot, but there is a lot more I could share with you. I hope this is a good start. And thank you for helping. If you have any specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them.

I've actually written a memoir about all this, but it needs some more work before it gets published. In the meantime I've been working on publishing Dennis Chan's memoir about last year's expedition to the Mariana Trench Monument. The book is called Our Northern Islands. A release date has not been set, but if you want to be the first to know when it will be available, become a fan of Dennis' Facebook page: Our Northern Islands.

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