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The U.S. Department of Defense is slowing the process of establishing live-fire training ranges on Pagan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands in response to widespread community concerns.
But under a new presidential administration, the U.S. military hasn’t lost its resolve to move ahead with the project affecting a small U.S. territory north of Guam that is home to about 50,000 people.
The DOD published a draft study in 2015 analyzing the impacts of using the western Pacific islands for training Marines who are moving to Guam from Okinawa and as part of a broader strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region. The plans sparked a sparked a backlash from residents who fear the destruction of the islands’ fragile environment and tourism-based economy.
After receiving more than 27,000 comments on its initial proposal, the DOD planned to issue a revised environmental analysis this month and publish a final decision next summer. But now the revised study won’t be published until late next year, and a final decision isn’t expected until approximately 2020.
“In order to fully address the concerns raised and provide a better proposed action, the draft EIS is being substantially rewritten,” DOD spokesman Chuck Little wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “The new schedule provides adequate time to complete new studies and analysis, conduct additional consultations with regulatory agencies, and inform the public of the proposed action as it evolves.”
In December, Civil Beat published Pacific Outpost, a series detailing the military expansion plans in the Northern Marianas and Guam.
Top national security officials already spent the past several months discussing the training plans with political leaders from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is made up of 14 islands, including Tinian and Pagan. It is about a three-hour flight from Tokyo.
The discussions led by the Department of Interior didn’t resolve any issues or result in any agreement between the DOD and local officials. In a report summarizing the consultations sent to Congress in January, the DOD agreed to set up a “coordinating council” to continue the conversation.
Chief Judge Ramona Manglona, who leads the U.S. District Court of the Northern Mariana Islands and heard the case, has scheduled another hearing April 6.
Meanwhile, local activists are dealing with the loss of Jerome Aldan, a staunch opponent of bombing Pagan. The mayor of a group of sparsely inhabited islands that included Pagan died last month after suffering an apparent heart attack.
Aldan, 43, was known as a vocal advocate of establishing homesteads on Pagan, once home to a village of indigenous people. Residents were evacuated in 1981 following a volcanic eruption, but a handful of people have been living there periodically for the past decade and hoping for eventual construction of homes and utility lines.
Esther Kia’aina, the former U.S. assistant secretary for insular areas, said Aldan participated in the Department of Interior-led consultations.
“He encapsulated the will of the people, for the people of Pagan,” she said.
The consultations between the commonwealth government and top defense officials may never have occurred if not for Kia’aina, a Native Hawaiian who was born on Guam.
President Barack Obama appointed Kia’aina in May to lead the discussions and they started in June. Three rounds took place in Washington, Honolulu and Saipan. DOD officials even flew to Tinian and Pagan to conduct site visits as part of the discussions.
Kia’aina said she urged the White House to hold the consultations because she felt there was a disconnect between the Navy’s attempts to get the training plans approved through the environmental law process and the concerns of residents. In exchange for U.S. citizenship, the islanders leased land to the military for training decades ago, including the entire island of Farallon de Medinilla for bombing practice.
Kia’aina said the DOD should move slowly on the expansion, in part because of how social media can fuel opposition.
“If the world starts hearing that after the pleas of the people you ramrodded something through, you’ll get an army,” she said. “In the case of Pagan, you’ll get a flotilla. The Mauna Kea movement is something that could be replicated across the whole region.”
While the final report resulting from the talks makes recommendations to address labor and immigration issues, its only recommendation regarding the military plans is to keep talking.
Kia’aina said the discussions were successful because the report crystallized the issues and the process facilitated conversations about the role of the U.S. in the commonwealth and its commitment to respecting the scarcity of land.
“It shifted the dialogue of DOD to the larger picture of why is the relationship important,” Kia’aina said, noting that the discussions showed “we are talking about a people, a future, limited land mass.”
“I think the message was, ‘No longer just treat us like an outpost, as part of your outpost for western Pacific strategy,'” she said. “There’s this underlying relationship that’s critically important that doesn’t have to do with the Department of Defense. It has to do with, does the U.S. care about the will of a people?”
It remains to be seen whether that position that will be maintained under President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
The commonwealth’s Gov. Ralph Torres is a Republican Trump supporter, and its delegates backed Trump during the Republican National Convention. The president promised during the campaign not to ignore the territory.
While he hasn’t said anything specifically about expanding military training in the commonwealth, a campaign spokesman said last year that Trump supports a military buildup and as president, he has called for increasing defense spending and strengthening the military’s presence in the Asia-Pacific. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kia’aina said she hopes the Trump administration will use the report as a resource when forming its position.
Wes Bogdan, an attorney for Torres, said in an email that the commonwealth is talking to the DOD to enact the report’s recommendation to create a forum for more discussions.
“The CNMI hopes and expects that the Final Report will continue to serve as a current and authoritative resource the new Administration and Congress can use to better understand immigration and military issues affecting the relationship between the NMI and United States,” Bogdan wrote.
Representatives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense didn’t respond to requests for comment, but said in the report that the department will “redouble its efforts to be transparent and consult with the CNMI political leadership on all issues of concern.”
Department of Justice attorneys are defending the training proposals against a lawsuit filed last year by Earthjustice and community organizations.
The suit contends that the Navy should have evaluated the impacts of adding large-scale training ranges on Tinian and Pagan when it reviewed the proposal to move 5,000 Marines to Guam. The move isn’t expected to be completed until 2026.
DOJ Attorney Joshua Wilson said during a hearing on Saipan last month that the decision to move Marines to Guam was a political issue that the court shouldn’t interfere with.
Attorney David Henkin, who works at the Honolulu Earthjustice office, argued that the DOD presented its training plans in segments and denied people the opportunity to see the full implications of moving 5,000 Marines to Guam.
But the DOJ’s Wilson said that “it’s just an allegation” that the proposed large-scale live-fire training ranges on Pagan and Tinian are “what’s needed to train Marines” moving to Guam. Wilson said that instead, the ranges would address training deficiencies affecting multiple branches of the military.
Craig Whelden, executive director of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, has previously said that the ranges would alleviate training deficiencies in the region, but were particularly needed because 5,000 Marines were moving to Guam, and it would be expensive to train them elsewhere.