Thursday, March 19, 2009

Angelo Villagomez thanks supporters

Thank you

One year ago I introduced the concept of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument to the people of the Marianas with the following words:

“It is the responsibility of every indigenous person to ensure that these islands are passed down to the next generation in the same condition in which they were passed down to us. I take that promise seriously. This is how I practice my culture.” (Practicing My Culture, Saipan Tribune, March 20, 2008)

The monument as proposed to the public had several months worth of input from government and environmental leaders in the Marianas. Prior to the announcement I had set up a meeting between Secretary of Department of Lands and Natural Resources Ignacio Dela Cruz, Senior Policy Advisor Ramon Mafnas, then-Representative Cinta M. Kaipat, and Jay Nelson of Pew Environment Group (August 2007). I also arranged a presentation by Pew Environment Group to the Mariana Island Nature Alliance at one of their public meetings (November 2007) and personally briefed the three heads of the local government’s natural resource agencies, Sylvan Igisomar of Division of Fish & Wildlife, Frank Rabauliman of Division of Environmental Quality, and John Joyner of Coastal Resource Management (December 2007). The monument was also discussed in several Beautify CNMI meetings, which are open to the public and announced ahead of time. Additionally, a letter outlining the concept of a monument was also sent to Governor Fitial in December 2007.

Additionally, one week before the public announcement I helped set up meetings with other government officials, including a presentation to a joint session of the Legislature and a meeting of the Governor’s Military Task Force, Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Commission, and Strategic Economic Development Council in which over 40 government, business, and community leaders attended (March 2008).

Input was taken at every meeting and led to the following proposal, which was eloquently captured in a letter to the editor by Cinta Kaipat on May 1, 2008. The proposal was to “create federally funded local jobs, give a needed boost to our struggling tourism industry, bring positive worldwide attention to our shores, and most importantly, protect three of our islands and their surrounding waters for generations to come.” (Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, Saipan Tribune, May 1)

The announcement was made in a letter to the editor and was followed by a series of 115 public meetings in conference rooms, meeting halls, pala palas, bars, classrooms, restaurants, people’s homes, and offices on the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.

During this process 6000 local residents exercised their First Amendment rights and petitioned President Bush to create the monument. 500 students wrote hand written letters containing their concerns and hopes for the monument. Over 400 people participated in a public meeting hosted by the White House to gather comments, the first of its kind in the Commonwealth. 206 Business owners and managers signed a petition in support of the monument and about 100 local people wrote letters and emails to the President.

Many of our local private institutions supported the designation of the monument, including the Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, Tan Holdings, Mariana Islands Nature Alliance, Beautify CNMI and Marianas Dive. The Saipan Tribune also endorsed the monument in an editorial.

Finally, Governor Fitial, Senate President Reyes, and House Speaker Palacios in an eleventh hour turn around came to support the monument. The monument would not have been designated had they not come on board. This was repeated at every meeting and despite claims by Wespac officials to the contrary, ultimately proved true.

Early on there was some confusion as to the role of a private institution and government. The process to create a monument was always something that would occur between governments. Although the Pew Environment Group and Friends of the Monument would have loved to have been at the so-called negotiating table, this process was always going to take place between the duly elected leaders of the Commonwealth and the United States and their appointed representatives. The role of the private institution was to provide information and public education, with a little political pressure for good measure.

It has been nearly three months since the Marianas became home to one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, yet the process to draft a management plan has just begun.

By April 6 the Secretary of Commerce will select a five person Marine Monument Advisory Council. Three of the council members will be government officials of the Northern Mariana Islands. They will be chosen in consultation with Governor Fitial.

Following the selection of the Advisory Council, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service will begin a scoping period where the public will have more opportunity for input.

With that said, everyone who was involved in getting us to where we are right now deserves a hearty pat on the back and a well-deserved thank you. I cannot think of any other issue that has engaged and inspired so many people and brought so many people together in recent memory. People who can usually not agree on anything came together to support this project. I admit that there were some people out on the fringes, but the vast majority of our people were behind the monument on the day it was designated.

Our community should be proud of what we have accomplished. Thank you to everyone who was involved.

Angelo Villagomez
Gualo Rai

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