Yesterday, James Connaughton arrived on island to conduct official federal discussions with the people of the CNMI regarding the wishes, concerns and, ultimately, support for or against the creation of a large marine protected area surrounding the islands of Asuncion, Maug and Uracas.
These tiny, remote islands in the Western Pacific make up the northernmost tip of a rugged archipelago stretching over 400 miles to the south. Each of the 16 islands of the Mariana chain protrude like vertebrae on a human spine as they arch their way along the deepest part of the world, the Marianas Trench. Three of the islands are considered active volcanoes while 7 are inhabited. Less than fifty people live in the northern islands while the southern islands including Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam make up the population base. Politically the chain is divided but it is also united under the flag of the United States of America. The southern most island of Guam is considered a territory while the other islands, with Saipan as the capital, make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI).
CNMI including local government representatives officially begins. Open to the public on Capitol Hill at 11:30 AM there will be a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives where Mr. Connaughton, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, will presumably be outlining the preliminary details of the proposal. A proposal that would see President Bush use the powers of the Antiquities Act to create the second largest marine sanctuary or protected area in the world. A proposal that has caused a lot of debate and, with significant advocacy campaigns for both sides, a certain amount of tension and distrust between those who favor and those who oppose.
The Marianas Trench Marine Monument, as it has become known, was a concept first floated by Jay Nelson of the Pew Environmental Group in November 2007 during a public retreat designed to establish the goals of a local NGO, the Marianas Island Nature Alliance (MINA). It was stated that President Bush was looking to have large NGO’s from around the world assess potential areas for the possibility of protection through use of the Antiquities Act as was done in creation of the Papahanaumokuakea monument in Hawaii two years earlier. While MINA decided to concentrate efforts in other directions, their director at the time, Angelo Villagomez, would later become the local Pew representative in charge of coordinating community outreach and advocacy for the monument concept.
Anyone who follows along with CNMI politics or who has had the opportunity to sit in on a session of the house or senate knows that this should make for a very interesting start to a long day indeed. Just to fill in anyone who’s jumping into this midstream, I’ll provide a quick run down of the highlights and how I perceive we’ve gotten to this point before jumping in with a few “fly on the wall” predictions as to how today might go down.Asuncion
During the MINA retreat, John Gourley, a local resident, former biologist at the Division of Fish and Wildlife and advisor to the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac), opposed the idea and would later become a leader of the movement to block the concept from being discussed. Shortly after Pew began conducting public information sessions, the CNMI legislature also acted quickly (within 24 hours of its introduction) on a resolution essentially stating they were not interested in any proposal that allowed unilateral action by the federal government. Around about the same time, Governor Fitial also wrote a letter against the idea despite never meeting with Pew representatives or hearing the concept.
From the beginning the lines were drawn. Fortunately the story does not end there. Those in favor of the concept did not give up and quickly pointed to the need for conservation as well as the potential benefits beyond resource preservation that would come with the designation including increased tourism, more jobs, positive international exposure and higher education for local residents. The opponents pointed to a “takeover” of the waters from the local people and a loss of commercial fishing and mineral extraction rights across 1/3 of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). They also set out to create an “Us vs. Them” mentality with the pushy outsider being the Pew Environmental group.
Early on, opponents also attempted to sound the alarm that native Hawaiians did not welcome the formation of Papahanaumokuakea and that President Bush had forced it upon them. Pew brought William Aila, a respected native Hawaiian, to Saipan where he spoke about the indigenous Hawaiians asking President Bush to declare the monument. In doing so he said Bush had ended the government infighting and pro-fishing lobbying that had prevented Hawaiians from achieving the additional protections they desired.
Next came the argument that the designation would prohibit indigenous people from ever visiting the islands and that restricting 1/3 of the EEZ from any potential extraction of minerals or fish in the future would spell disaster for the local economy. Pew commissioned an economic study and like every economic study it was based on assumptions that could be argued one way or the other, but in the end it showed the immediate and long-term positive economic boost that would come from increased federal funding and increased tourism. At the time Aila also assured local fisherman that in the case of Hawaii, it is local Hawaiians that decide who is issued permits for fishing. So, although there were restrictions, it is not entirely prohibited and he encouraged people of the Marianas to demand a seat at the table when negotiating any rules or regulations for their own monument.
Another point of contention is the debate over who owns the rights to the waters surrounding the three islands. While the courts have ruled in favor of federal jurisdiction from the high water point out to 200 miles, many in the CNMI believe the issue of submerged lands is ongoing and that agreeing to the monument will officially give up what is theirs. However, many recognize that creation of the monument along with a co-management agreement including participation by local government would give the people of the CNMI a stronger position in the regulatory process while providing much needed funding for properly managing such a vast area of water.
In June just before I had to leave the island for my heart condition, a small group of local residents was formed. The Friends of the Marianas Trench Marine Monument (FMTMM) believed in the concept Pew had brought forward but realized the organization had not necessarily handled the delivery appropriately under the circumstances. They also realized that the opposition was spreading misinformation while attempting to put a stop to any real discussions before they got started. The Friends set out on a campaign to educate and discuss the issues as well as the potential benefits with the people of the CNMI. Over 5000 signatures and numerous support letters later, the group has grown and by all reports I get from the ground it seems they have been successful in gaining considerable support for the Marine Monument. This, while what seems like a few with a vested interest in the status quo, continue to oppose the idea based on the loss of potential commercial mining and fishing rights as well as the change in administrative jurisdiction. They continue to push the idea that no help is needed to protect or study this vast area of water despite the current lack of funds and personnel to do so. They point to past “effective” fishery management by local agencies through Wespac and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act as reason enough not to consider any type of large marine protected or no-take zone in the area. It is interesting to note that should a monument be designated there will be a change at the Federal level with regards to who manages the proposed area. As it stands now jurisdiction falls under the NOAA fisheries division, of which Wespac is an advisory body. If the monument becomes reality governance will be co-managed with the lead federal agency shifting to the NOAA Sanctuaries program where Wespac has little influence. Local input and co-management responsibilities will likely mean changes at the local DFW offices as well and perhaps even the creation of a new local agency all together.
So, with much at stake and both sides firmly believing they are right, a whole bunch of people will show up this morning when discussions about the monument officially begin in the Senate chamber. No doubt on one side of the room will be Angelo Villagomez and Jay Nelson alongside the Friends in a sea of orange. On the other will be John Gourley, Sylvain Igisomar and other representatives of Wespac and DFW. I predict all or most of the government officials will be present and the room will be full. The press will be there. Jacqueline from the Saipan Tribune will get a great front-page cover shot for tomorrow’s paper. Chris Nelson or one of the KSPN reporters will be there with their video cameras trying to capture the scene including an interview with at least one of the Senators and Mr. Connaughton himself. Then later today there will be a press conference at the Friends of the Monument office in Garapan where support signatures will be officially turned over to the federal government. Finally at 5:30 tonight a public forum will be held at the Aquarius hotel. The room will again be packed with supporters in orange and those against (I’m not sure what color they will wear). There will be tension. There will be angry accusations. There will be many trying to sound intelligent but in the end many will likely ramble on. They will run out of time and then everyone will go home.
That’s as far as I wish to predict. I don’t believe Angelo and John will go for beers together afterward but I’m confident Angelo will have at least one among a group of dedicated people wearing orange.
Stay tuned for a full report!
UPDATE - The Day After.
An excellent story in the Tribune today. 'CNMI may regain control over its submerged lands'
Another Tribune story on the petition hand over. '5,502: A monumental number'
And Another Tribune article about Friends & Style 'Monument backers sport orange ahead of forum"
Jane Mack has written her take on the public forum.
Other articles and Links from the past 24 hours or so..
Amazed and Proud
Thanks for supporting the monument plan
The WOW of MMM
DFW arguments for marine monument
Angelo's Blog and Updates
The following are links to additional articles I've written about the Marianas Trench Monument in chronological order. Those with an * have been published in the Saipan Tribune and Marianas Variety.
April 25th 2008
Act Two - Northern Island Marine Monument
Friday, May 9, 2008
Marine Monument - Why Kill It Now?*
Monday, May 12, 2008
Marine Monument – Personalities & Politics*
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Marine Monument - Lets Talk eh!*
Friday, May 16, 2008
Marine Monument - The Benefits / It's Not All About the Fishing*
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Marine Monument - Get Informed
Friday, May 23, 2008
Marine Monument - Ruth's Round Up
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Bush Eyes Unprecedented Conservation Program - NPR Report
Monday, July 14, 2008
Coral Triangle Meet the Trench Monument
Friday, July 18, 2008
Pew's Role Defined