Friday, September 6, 2013

A visitors’ center worthy of the marine monument

As one of the framers of our Constitution, my father knew the value of our natural resources to our culture and argued for permanent protections for Mañagaha, and the three northernmost islands of Asuncion, Maug, and Uracas. He taught me that 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.

That’s why I worked so hard alongside The Friends of the Monument and The Pew Charitable Trusts to help create the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

It is an indisputable fact that the people of the Northern Marianas support environmental protection and it is no wonder that there was such a tidal wave of support for the creation of the Marianas Trench Monument.

When the monument was declared on Jan. 6, 2009, then governor Benigno R. Fitial, then Senate president Pete P. Reyes, and then House speaker Arnold Palacios led in celebration 6,000 local residents, 500 students, and 206 businesses. As I recall, Governor Fitial was so elated he hugged President George W. Bush right after the signing.

In a letter to the editor, former representative Cinta M. Kaipat wrote that the goals of the monument were 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.” (Saipan Tribune, May 1, 2008)

Much has been accomplished toward achieving these goals. In the last five years there has been positive media attention for the islands, renewed interest in scientific exploration of the area, and a federally funded office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened in Garapan. But work still needs to be done. Everyone must come together to move ahead with creating the visitor center and bringing to fruition the economic promise of this impressive marine reserve.

In 2009, the same year the monument was declared, Delegate Gregorio Sablan earmarked $220,000 in the fiscal year 2010 Consolidated Appropriation Act (HR 3288) for the design of our visitor center. It was a proud moment. Our first representative in the U.S. Congress passed one of his first bills.

The Friends and Pew worked with the delegate’s office and with NOAA, the recipient of the funding, to draft a grant to the CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources 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.” (Delegate Sablan, letter to DLNR Secretary Ignacio Dela Cruz, Dec. 30, 2009)

The plan was to develop an architectural blueprint so that Delegate Sablan, along with the Friends and Pew, could ask Congress to fund the construction. Although progress stalled at the local level, today we have a new governor, a new DLNR secretary, and from what I understand from media reports, soon we’ll have a new architectural plan for a monument visitor center. This is excellent news, and everyone who had a hand in its completion deserves congratulations.

Soon it will be time to take the plan to Washington, and I know the Friends, Pew and our elected officials will do all they can to help. But there is no guarantee that federal funding will be available. In the meantime, the Friends continue to work with the community on outreach and education. Pew has supported these efforts and continues to engage with CNMI leaders at the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, Micronesian Chief Executive Summit, and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

The people of the Northern Mariana Islands should be proud of what we have accomplished. From the Micronesia Challenge, to the Marianas Trench Monument, and most recently our leadership in global shark conservation, the world is taking notice. Let’s welcome them with a visitor center worthy of these efforts.

Angelo Villagomez is with The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

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