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Farallon de Medinilla is a tiny uninhabited island north of Guam in the Western Pacific, less than 2 miles long and a half a mile wide. The U.S. military has been using it for target practice for 45 years.
Now that the Department of Defense is focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region, the activity on FDM, as the military refers to it, is skyrocketing.
The Navy recently got permission to drop 4,000 more explosives there every year along with tens of thousands more rounds of ammunition aimed at targets on the island.
That’s in addition to as many as 2,000 rockets hitting the island each year, and hundreds more grenades and mortars.
The total number of munitions dropped on the island, such as cartridges and flares, increased 300 percent to 51,755.
The recent approval to triple operations on FDM is part of a broader ramping up of training along the Mariana Island chain, which includes Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Fourteen years ago, the Navy got an exemption to continue bombing the island despite the fact that migratory birds were being harmed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also raised concerns that erosion associated with the military activity may be taking its toll on nearshore coral.
Before it was used for military training, the island had a large forest with bougainvillea trees, according to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ Department of Public Lands.
The U.S. gained control over the Northern Marianas during World War II, and used Naftan Rock, off the island of Tinian, as a bombing range starting in 1944.
But by 1968, the bombing was devastating the seabird population and making it harder for fishermen to find fish.
So residents of the region asked the military to use Farallon de Medinilla instead, and the Navy and Air Force have been bombing FDM since October 1971.
As part of a deal in which residents of the Northern Marianas received U.S. citizenship, the U.S. got a 50-year lease on FDM in 1983 for just $20,600. It has the option to extend for another 50 years.
In 2000, a local bird watcher joined with the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice and filed suit to stop the bombing, arguing it violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In its defense, the Navy actually argued that the plaintiff wasn’t harmed because bird watchers get more enjoyment seeing rare birds.
In 2002, a judge’s ruling stopped the bombing.
But the respite was short-lived. Responding to the September 11 terror attacks, Congress exempted military training from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and by the end of 2002 bombing had resumed.
“The whole country was in a pitch fervor that perhaps remains unabated today to exempt the military from a variety of environmental laws,” recalls Peter Galvin, who worked on the case for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The backdrop of 9/11 cannot be understated.”
Farallon de Medinilla is just 1.7 miles long and 0.3 miles wide, and is home to numerous migratory birds.
The Navy’s 1974 environmental impact statement for Farallon de Medinilla has a blunt assessment of the potential effects of the bombing:
“The environmental impact consists of explosions and fragmentation of metal shell and bomb casings. The adverse effects are cratering, sprays of shell and bomb fragment, ground disruption, water pollution, air pollution, destruction of vegetation and animal life, and other related effects in varying degrees confined to the target area.”
“The bombardment of Farallon de Medinilla as previously discussed, destroys wildlife and plant life and creates a long-lasting hazard to humans from unexploded ordnance,” the analysis continues. “However the only foreseeable long-term use for the island is as a habitat for seabirds. Such use will not be affected.”
It’s hard to say exactly how the bombing has impacted the birds because surveys conducted over several decades have used different methodologies.
The 1974 environmental impact statement estimates there were about 50,000 adult birds called boobies on the island. That was after three years of bombing.
Last year, University of Hawaii scientists reviewed periodic survey data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service between 1997 and 2014 and found an average of 515 boobies on the island.
But Richard Camp, the main author of the study, says the different methodologies mean that you can’t say the number of birds has dropped from 50,000 to 515.
Even if it has dropped, other factors like climate change could have caused the change.
Plus, the data was limited. Most of the surveys were done by observing the island while on a helicopter or boat because the risk of unexploded ordnance makes it hard to walk around the island.
Camp says he found it heartening and surprising how well the bird populations are faring despite the bombing.
Still, he concluded some bird populations are in decline.
“Although the trends were non-significant, there is some evidence that masked and red-footed booby species have declined while brown booby and moorhen have increased,” he wrote.
John Van Name, senior environmental planner at the U.S. Pacific Fleet, says Farallon de Medinilla is an important training area. He calls it a “critical asset,” and says bombing doesn’t mean the Navy can’t also be a good steward of the environment.
The military only bombs the southernmost part of Farallon de Medinilla to allow some migratory birds to nest in the northern part of the island, he says.
The middle section of the island is subject to machine gun fire and other nonexplosive ordnance. The northernmost part is left alone.
But seabirds aren’t the only concern. The EPA wants the Department of Defense to conduct annual surveys of the island’s coral reef to determine the impact of erosion.
Richard Seman, a fisherman on Saipan and head of the commonwealth’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, used to go to Farallon de Medinilla to conduct annual surveys of the island.
He finds it ironic that the U.S. allows the killing of seabirds while limiting where local people can fish. FDM lies just south of a national marine monument protecting the northernmost islands in the Marianas.
“On one side we’re prohibited from exercising our culture with the limited take of sea turtle for ceremonial purpose and yet the federal government allows the military to kill some of their own protected species,” Seman says. “I guess in the name of national security, certain things got to give.”