The U.S. military is dramatically scaling back its proposed training plans from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the territory’s governor announced this week.

Gov. Ralph Torres’ office said that the Department of Defense submitted an amended version of the CNMI Joint Military Training plan to the governor’s office that eliminates all proposed training on the island of Pagan.

The new draft proposal also gets rid of the planned landing ramps on Unai Chulu in Tinian, which environmental officials warned would harm coral reefs, and a planned artillery range on Tinian that would have destroyed historic landmarks from World War II.

Military training will continue on Tinian but at a much less intense scale, the governor’s office said in a press release issued Thursday.

Pagan Volcano Lake Military Marianas Dan Lin
The military proposed bombing practice around the northern volcano on Pagan. This lake lies at the base of that volcano. Dan Lin/Civil Beat

“The new notional proposal contemplates similar training activities that are already currently conducted on the island of Tinian but with an eye towards training for the future that is significantly less impactful and harmful to the environment and the way of life for the people of Tinian than the 2015 proposal,” the press release said.

The governor’s office did not provide a copy of the new proposal. The Defense Department did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Glenna Sakisat Palacios, special assistant to the governor for military affairs, declined to answer questions, saying a virtual press conference to discuss the issue was planned on April 8.

Community Concerns

When the CNMI Joint Military Training plan was first proposed in 2015, it prompted widespread backlash, including more than 27,000 comments on the draft environmental impact statement, even though the commonwealth is home only to about 50,000 people.

At the time, the CNMI Joint Military Training was far from the only proposed expansion of military training in the region. The Air Force had proposed a new airfield on Tinian, the Marines planned to relocate troops from Okinawa to Guam and the Navy proposed expanding and extending undersea training and testing and bombing practice on Farallon de Medinilla.

But the CNMI Joint Military Training plan included by far the most intense training, proposing bombing practice on the northern half of Pagan and heavy artillery training on Tinian.

The Environmental Protection Agency warned the plans for Tinian could contaminate the island’s aquifer, and the environmental analysis for the CNMI Joint Military Training plan estimated 200 historic sites on Tinian would be affected.

The proposal prompted a 2016 lawsuit from the Honolulu Earthjustice office in partnership with local organizations.

Other military proposals proceeded, with the new Tinian airfield breaking ground in February and the new Marine Corps base opening on Guam during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the community opposition and concern about the project prompted instead a series of meetings between local leaders and defense officials.

At the same time, the strategic importance of the region that initially inspired the training plans has been thrown into sharper focus as the U.S. has grown increasingly concerned about China’s relationships with Pacific nations and President Joe Biden’s administration pledged to bolster its Pacific presence. Just this week, the Biden administration requested nearly $900 million to build up missile defenses on Guam.

Cinta Kaipat, who grew up on Pagan, said Thursday that learning her island wouldn’t be target practice was momentous.

“While we are patriotic U.S. citizens whose grandfathers, fathers, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews served and continue to serve our country — some even paying the ultimate sacrifice — we had to speak up and continued to speak up to protect what is left of our very tiny and fragile home islands,” Kaipat said. “Our landscapes are still littered with old WWII tanks and huge canons. Some of our elders remain traumatized even after all these years since WWII ended.”

Still Training On Tinian

According to the governor’s press release, the revised military training plan would continue military training on Tinian. Tinian Mayor Edwin Aldan, who participated in the conversations with the defense officials about the plans, still called the revisions “a big win.”

“The exclusion of artillery and aviation delivered munitions and High Hazard Impact activities means no more bombs and howitzers type of weapons,” Aldan said. “Because these activities are removed, there is no longer a need to restrict air space.

He added that it “allows for a greater public access to historical sites and beaches within the (military lease area) which is critical to our tourism industry and our economy.”

The removal of the heavy artillery range also would allow the cattle industry to grow, he said. Cattle ranchers on Tinian were very concerned about how the proposed bombing would affect their livestock and livelihoods.

Aldan and other local leaders who participated in the conversations with defense officials praised the process and transparency. But not everyone feels good about how the process was conducted.

Rep. Sheila Babauta from Saipan said Thursday that she wished there was more transparency.

“I felt like a lot of us were kept out of the loop and there was missed opportunity for input,” she said. She questioned whether the training will be moved elsewhere in the Pacific and she said that’s still a concern to her, even if it’s no longer in the CNMI.

There are still many questions about what the revised training plan looks like. David Henkin, an attorney at Honolulu Earthjustice, said he’s looking forward to the release of a revised environmental impact analysis. It’s unclear when that will be forthcoming.

“If in fact the Navy has abandoned plans to turn Pagan into the next Kahoolawe that would be welcome,” he said, adding, “I’m concerned about popping champagne prematurely.”

Still, Babauta said she’s grateful so many people spoke up with their concerns.

“I’m very happy and relieved and very proud of the community for this outcome,” she said.

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