Friday, March 19, 2010

One Week in Washington, DC

Under the Pala Pala XII – One Week in Washington, DC

Island Decisions and Island Opinions are made Under the Pala Pala

Last month I traveled to Washington, DC to assist Agnes McPhetres in testifying before the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans, and Wildlife on behalf of the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument. I also helped set up and participated in several meetings with federal officials, including Subcommittee staff, the staff of Representative Gregorio Kilili, and officials with NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries, and others. We were unable to meet with anyone in Interior; they were busy with the Coral Reef Task Force meetings and were dealing with the passing of their Director.

Our week in our nation’s Capital was well spent. We traveled there to express our support for Representative Sablan’s H.R. 3511 and our opposition to Representative Madeleine Bordallo’s H.R. 4493. While we were there we picked up a lot of useful information and I would like to pass this along to the people living in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and those who are concerned with the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument and other related marine issues.

But first I would like to reiterate why I, along with the Friends of the Monument, support Sablan’s bill and oppose Bordallo’s bill. We are opposed to Bordallo’s bill for three reasons:

1. H.R. 4493 violates the promises made by the United States Government.
2. H.R. 4493 includes the Government Guam in the management of marine resources fully contained within the CNMI’s jurisdiction.
3. H.R. 4493 ties the management of the Mariana Trench Monument to the Guam National Wildlife Refuge, which according to Guam Public Law 23-24 is not recognized by the people of Guam.

When the Mariana Trench Monument was declared, the Government of the United States of America promised the people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands that the monument would lead to the construction of a visitors center in the CNMI and the funding of vessels to access the area. H.R. 4493 would transfer these social and economic benefits from CNMI to Guam.

H.R. 4493 would also give Guam a seat on the Monument Advisory Panel and a role in the monument management plan. Bordallo argues that Guam should have a seat at the table because the monument includes their marine resources and because Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the ocean, is near Guam. That is untrue. There are no marine resources within 400 miles of Guam’s shore protected by the monument. The Islands Unit, the federal waters surrounding the CNMI islands of Uracas, Maug, and Asunction, is the only unit of the larger monument that includes marine protections. The Trench Unit and the Volcanic Unit, the units that come within 60 miles of Guam, are not marine protected areas. They do not protect marine resources; they simply recognize unique geological features at the bottom of the ocean. And Challenger Deep lies outside the borders of the monument. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Federated States of Micronesia and is not owned by the United States.

Finally, H.R. 4493 would tie the management of the Mariana Trench Monument in with the Guam National Wildlife Refuge. Doing so would create chaos and would inhibit the development of a monument management plan. Guam P.L. was passed “to prohibit the Government of Guam from entering into cooperative agreements with respect to the so-called Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Department of Interior at the property in the northern area of Guam that was formerly the U.S. Naval Facility and to prohibit the use of Government of Guam resources and personnel in any manner that could be construed as supporting continuous federal holding of such properties.” To put it bluntly, H.R 4493 is in direct conflict with the laws of Guam.

This is just a quick summary of our testimony. If you are interested you can read the more detailed Testimony of the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument and Testimony of Agnes McPhetres.

Then before I get into what we learned during our week in Washington, DC, I would just like to point out that from an environmentalist’s point of view, this whole process is a good thing. It is exciting that there is so much interest in the Marianas Trench Monument that the CNMI and Guam are working out which jurisdiction should have the larger role in its management. Imagine if the opposite were true; imagine if there was no interest in marine conservation. I prefer the current situation.

Representative Bordallo also deserves thanks for allowing this discussion and the Subcommittee hearing to take place. As the Chair she could easily push her bill through to the Committee level. She should be commended for taking the time to listen to the people of the CNMI and for allowing the 150+ letters written by our people to be introduced into the record.

By the way, how many people living on Guam submitted letters?

As this moves forward, it will be important to keep in mind that Bordallo is the Subcommittee Chair. She’s going to use her position to make sure she gets something. I’m just hopeful that a fair compromise can be worked out.

Placing the visitors center and headquarters in the CNMI must be non-negotiable, however. Promises were made by the United States Government and those promises have to be kept, but there must be a way to include Guam in the management plan of the geological resources of the monument as long as they agree that they should have no role in the management of the marine resources seeing as they are entirely within the jurisdiction of the CNMI.

Should Bordallo push ahead with including Guam in the management plan of the marine resources of the monument by changing the Antiquities Act declaration, one compromise could be legislating the Trench Unit into a no-take marine protected area. There is no commercial, recreational, subsistence, or sustenance fishing in that area today, so this would be a non-controversial, win-win move. CNMI would then no longer have an argument for not including Guam in the management plan and it would also turn the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument into the second largest marine protected area on the planet, another win-win. Another compromise would be to expand the Islands Unit to include Stingray Shoals, an area identified by NOAA as having the highest remaining shark densities in the Pacific, and the boiling pools of sulfur west of Maug, the universe’s only known sulfur pools outside Jupiter’s moon Io.

Also, if Bordallo is going to attempt to tie the monument to the Guam National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt to secure funds to manage and expand their existing Nature Center, she should start by pushing the Guam Senate to change Public Law 23-24 to officially recognize the Wildlife Refuge.

Now with all that out of the way, what exactly did we learn during our trip?

We learned from Eileen Sobeck, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks that there was no funding request made for the monument for 2011. The 2012 fiscal year does not begin until October 1, 2011; that is the earliest date funding to develop a management plan will be available. It is 9 months after the deadline imposed by the monument declaration.

We learned that 90% of the National Wildlife Refuges do NOT have visitors centers. That is a sobering thought and invalidates the argument that Guam and CNMI can each have a Marianas Trench Visitors Center. In all likelihood there will be no visitors center as long as United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the manager of the monument; and if there is one, there will only be one, not two.

There will also someday likely be a headquarters for this monument. USFWS officials have already expressed to us how easy it would be to house this headquarters on Guam. There is already an USFWS office on Guam and staff on Guam. All they’d have to do is add a few desks and allowing Guam on the Monument Advisory Panel makes this even more likely. If Governor Fitial wants to see those federal jobs come to the CNMI, he needs to change his position and oppose including Guam in the management scheme.

We learned that USFWS is always under-funded; their budget for the entire Pacific was under $1 million last year. Sobeck said that a visitors center typically costs about $7 million to build. You do the math.

We also learned that any monument educational programs as administered by USFWS would likely be volunteer driven, not paid, otherwise they would have to be initiated by the Friends of the Monument.

Clearly, the monument as is, the monument the leaders of the CNMI said they “negotiated,” is not the monument requested by any of the Friends of the Monument.

In our testimony we made the suggestion to transfer management authority from USFWS to NOAA Sanctuaries. We learned from different sources that this would be very difficult, that Congress tries not to amend Antiquities Act declarations. Another option would be for National Parks to take over from USFWS. We learned that this also has political ramifications and would be difficult, if not impossible.

Not all was bad; we also learned some good things. We learned that NOAA Sanctuaries could still build a visitors center in the CNMI although USFWS is the monument’s manager. They told us about the Dr. Nancy Foster Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West, Florida. The Eco-Discovery Center features numerous exhibits that interpret the resources and management efforts of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, two national parks, and four national wildlife refuges. Exhibits include aspects of history, geography, and culture, as well as nature.

Something similar could exist in the CNMI, in fact, funding is already available that could design such a facility. On December 16, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the “FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriation Act (HR 3288)” which included an $220,000 earmark for the CNMI Department of Lands & Natural Resources.

In a letter to DLNR Secretary Ignacio Dela Cruz dated December 30, 2009, Representative Gregorio Camacho “Kilili” Sablan stated that the funds could be used to “develop a process for engaging input from the public to create a visitor and education center that will incorporate our existing marine protected areas and the new Marianas Trench National Monument.”

All Governor Fitial would have to do to move this forward is to write to NOAA Sanctuaries requesting their support and expertise in designing and implementing a plan for the “Angelo O’Connor Villagomez Eco-Discovery Center.”

We can work out the name later if somebody takes issue with it.

I know there is a lot of information contained in this letter and that I jump around a bit, but I hope it helps you wrap your brain around the many issues and players surrounding the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

It is never too late to have your voice heard. You can write a letter to Governor Fitial, Representaive Sablan, Representative Bordallo, President Obama, or any other elected official to share with them your hopes for this monument. I am always available to assist in any way possible.


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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