Sunday, February 12, 2012

Monument Blame Game

First of all, let me just say that I am sending you this as an individual, not on behalf of any organization.

I read the article about the monument in the February 11 Saipan Tribune and have several comments. The criticisms made are clearly an issue of Ben Sablan trying to create controversy ahead of a visit by federal officials. Several of his statements are off-base. Others are blatant falsehoods.

The reason the CNMI only has two seats on the monument advisory council right now is because the third seat was given to former DFW director Sylvan Igisomar. He recently retired and moved to Texas. Arnold Palacios was a last minute replacement, and the federal government hasn't approved him yet. In fact, the local government hasn't even approved Palacios in his position, so it is ridiculous to criticize the federal government on this issue. Incidentally, Palacios has been invited to participate in the meetings as a full member.

The $333 million "benefit" referred to by Sablan is also misleading. The University of Guam professor who authored the study Sablan cites talked about a 2008 "present value" of $333 million, which is an economic term to describe what the area could be worth. The economic benefit the study predicted was actually only about $10 million per year, with funds coming from a combination of federal funding, a boost in tourism from increased international exposure, and high-end tourism and research in the Northern Islands. Unfortunately Dr. Iverson made some incorrect assumptions about the proposed monument (He also failed to predict the Great Recession and the rise of the Tea Party, which are by far the biggest reason the federal government has yet to fund the monument).

First of all, Iverson predicted the monument would be the largest or second largest in the world, which it is not. The Islands Unit, the only part of the monument that is a marine protected area, is only 10% of the size proposed by the Friends of the Monument. Logically, a small marine protected area needs less funding than a large marine protected area. Second, the study assumed the manager of the monument would be NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries. However, management authority was given to US Fish & Wildlife Service, which is a different government agency in a different federal department with different priorities and different budgets. If Dr. Iverson were to reassess his numbers with these new assumptions, the numbers would be different and likely much less than $10 million. I encourage readers to read the study to come to their own conclusions.

Read the economic study here.

Also, while it is very easy to play the blame game, it must be noted that the CNMI had a great opportunity to fund the monument with ARRA. Were any ARRA funds requested for the monument? Or were certain people still steaming over its declaration and hoping that they could get it overturned rather than get it funded and working? There are some people, including Sablan, who want to see and are working very hard to make the monument fail. The opportunity to fund the monument with ARRA has now passed.

As for the concrete economic benefits that have been received since the monument's declaration, much of the credit is due to Delegate Kilili's hard work. He helped secure $1/4 million the year the monument was declared to design a visitors center. For a number of reasons related to local politics, that money hasn't been spent and a visitors center has not been designed. That is not the federal government's fault; that is the local government's fault. Delegate Kilili also sponsored a bill that would have actually built the visitor's center in the Northern Marianas once it was designed, but that bill has yet to pass due to national politics and the current state of the national economy (You may remember when RNC Chairman Michael Steele visited the CNMI during the 2010 election and promised to cut federal spending? He delivered on his promise).

Despite the economic downturn, the federal government has hired at least two full-time employees on Saipan. I'll respect their privacy in this matter, but those jobs are a direct result of the monument declaration. They pay local taxes and support local businesses, creating jobs in the private sector. And despite Sablan's claim to the contrary, federal officials have visited Saipan on numerous occasions, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and supporting job creation in the private sector. The 2010 Coral Reef Task Force was also held in Saipan to highlight the creation of the monument. This conference brought tens of thousands of dollars to the local economy.

The CNMI also continues to receive global media attention due to the monument and other unrelated but similar environmental initiatives, such as the 2011 shark fin ban introduced by Diego Benavente and signed by Governor Fitial. This is international attention MVA would otherwise have to pay a premium on, so it saves the government untold hundreds of thousands of dollars at the same time it attracts tourists who spend money in the local economy. This is something the CNMI should leverage, which to date it has not.

And despite these unfounded criticisms, most importantly, our children are already benefiting from the monument declaration, and it was for them many of you reading this supported the monument's creation. In 2009, a recent graduate of Marianas High School was taken to the monument and wrote a book about that experience. Hundreds of copies of his book Our Northern Islands have been donated to the public schools, and once the Friends of the Monument raise more money, more will be donated. Before the monument was declared, how many people could even name the Northern Islands? Now our children have photos and stories to share from them. Also, NOAA provided our public schools with 100 copies of a lesson plan about exploring the Mariana Trench and trained Agnes McPhetres to "teach the teachers" on how to use them.

The community should be excited that they have the opportunity to participate in the management of their monument. Despite misconceptions that the federal government was going to take this part of the Marianas away, what they are really doing is reminding our people that this part of our home still belongs to us and that we need to take care of it. I encourage the community to attend the upcoming public meetings and to continue to work hard to protect our fragile natural heritage.

Angelo Villagomez
Washington, DC