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By Steve Limtiaco
The U.S. military wants to acquire the entire island of Pagan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, so it can shell the island’s northern end and conduct special forces training in the south, according to a training range proposal and environmental study it prepared several years ago. It still is working on its training plan.
But the CNMI government last week announced it will resettle the island, which was evacuated in 1981 because of an active volcano, by issuing as many as 88 permits for agricultural homesteads. Applications for dozens of 5,000 square-meter lots are now being accepted. Land is available to adults of Northern Marianas descent who do not already have an agricultural homestead.
“This is the first step in getting Pagan resettled. Our next goal is to issue village homestead lots.” acting Department of Public Lands Secretary Marianne Concepcion-Teregeyo said. “Pagan is a very special place for many of our residents, and it is only fitting that we issue agricultural homesteads.”
Resettling Pagan could impact the military’s training range proposal, which currently assumes the island is “not officially occupied,” with only limited human activity and infrequent day trips by eco-tourism cruises.
Joint Region Marianas last Friday said it was preparing comment on the issue.
Pagan is a critical element of the military’s ability to train in the CNMI, the military has stated, because existing military property, in northern Tinian, is inadequate for the full range of training the military and its allies require. It has to use both islands, as neither meets every need.
“The federal government would seek to acquire a real estate interest for the entire island of Pagan (approximately 11,974 acres) from the CNMI government," the training proposal states.
The northern part of Pagan would be used for high-impact bombardment, according to the military’s preferred training alternative. The southern part of the island would be used by military special forces, who would land by sea or by helicopter.
Northern Islands Mayor Vicente Santos is not anti-military, but he opposes the bombing of Pagan, said Valentino Taisacan, administrative officer for the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office is on Saipan, where most Pagan residents moved after they evacuated.
Taisacan acknowledged that moving people to Pagan could affect the military’s plans to take over the island, but said the resettlement is an ongoing effort that spans the terms of several past mayors.
Pagan's 54 residents were evacuated by ship in May 1981 following the eruption of the volcano, Mt. Pagan.
Taisacan said four people currently live on Pagan full-time, including an employee of the mayor’s office, whose duties include maintaining the road and water wells.
Access to the remote island remains a challenge, with only eight visits by government-funded boats per year. “Hopefully, now that we have homestead, we can try to push for the Pagan runway,” Taisacan said.
The idea is to improve and certify a Japanese-built runway on the island so it can accommodate larger planes that carry dozens of passengers, he said. Only smaller planes, carrying a handful of passengers, currently are able to land on the island, he said.
There’s also the issue of the still-active volcano. “That’s not a problem. We have an evacuation plan in place already for Pagan,” Taisacan said.
According to the CNMI governor’s office, government surveyors visited Pagan in 2017 to conduct land surveys and install monuments on each of the agricultural homestead lots.
The agricultural homestead program issues homestead permits for government land to qualified applicants. Permit holders eventually will receive a deed of conveyance for the land if they comply with the rules while holding a permit.
“This marks a historic step for (Department of Public Lands) and for our community, as we are now giving residents the opportunity to own agricultural homestead lots on Pagan. (Public Lands) and its Homestead Division should be commended for finally pushing this dream of many of our residents into realities. We look forward to the issuance date and seeing residents return to their ancestral lands,” Gov. Ralph Torres said.
"We will continue to monitor the implementation of this policy, so that we can get lots up there as soon as we can,” Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios said.
Ongoing legal challenge
The proposed CNMI military training prompted a federal lawsuit by the Tinian Women Association, Guardians of Gani', Paganwatch and the Center for Biological Diversity, who have argued Pagan would be the target of ship-to-shore naval bombardment, which would destroy native forests and coral reefs,
They lost their case last year in the CNMI federal court, but appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The first brief in that appeal was filed in early February, and the military's brief is due March 11.
The military three years ago announced it would reevaluate its training plans for CNMI, with more studies on the training’s potential impact and plans to mitigate that impact. The additional study was sparked by concerns stated during the public comment period on the original proposal.
The revised draft environmental impact statement for the CNMI Joint Military Training will be publicly available by “early 2019,” according to the military, but Joint Region Marianas said it still does not have an exact date for its release.
When the new impact statement is released, it is expected to be extensive, with, "additional studies on impacts to coral, potable water, local transportation, and socioeconomic effects on surrounding communities," the military stated in court documents filed June 2018. “These additional studies and details on mitigation risks will support the development and analysis of new alternatives and will be used to prepare the (revised draft environmental impact statement).”
SOURCE: GUAM PACIFIC DAILY NEWS/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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