Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

At forum, public speaks out on NMI monument

By Stefan Sebastian
Business Editor

Members of the public both for and against the White House's plan to establish a marine monument in the CNMI gave federal authorities feedback during a public forum at the Fiesta Resort Monday night. (Stefan Sebastian) A sea of people, some sporting orange t-shirts and others holding protest signs, filled a conference room at the Fiesta Resort and Spa Monday night for a forum on the White House's proposal to declare the waters around the CNMI's three northernmost islands as a marine monument.

The proposal-which would place thousands of square miles of ocean water around the islands of Maug, Asuncion and Uracas under heightened federal protections-has become one of the most hotly contested local issues of the day, with supporters saying it will preserve a unique haven for undersea life and opponents arguing it will trample on the rights of people in the CNMI.

Diving into the fray this week are officials from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who earlier on Monday held a four-hour talk with the local Legislature and private discussions with Gov. Benigno Fitial. In Monday night's forum, the White House team did far more listening than talking as members of the public both for and against the monument gave them a piece of their minds.

Throughout much of the forum, the public participants engaged in discussion groups to answer a host of questions about the proposal on topics such as, among others, what resources should be considered in the White House's assessment of the waters at issue and how to structure a co-management scheme for the region.

Among the key concerns raised by the discussion groups were whether the federal government could guarantee funding linked to the monument, whether indigenous people would continue to have access to the northern islands if the plan moves forward, and the Bush administration's timeline for making a decision-which some critics have said is rushed given the president's pending departure from the White House in January. For his part, CEQ chief James Connaughton appeared ready to try to calm the nerves of many in the crowd who came with apprehensions about the plan.

“This is an opportunity to put the Northern Marianas on the international map,” he told them. “But it's an opportunity that the people of the Marianas have to want.”

A crucial reservation many opponents of the proposal have long voiced is that it will limit or bar access in the future to undersea mineral deposits in the region and geothermal energy resources. However, in an interview, Connaughton said that preliminary scientific data on the plan suggests that the undersea geological resources within the proposed monument's boundaries are uniquely arranged so that they could potentially be extracted without harming the surrounding ecosystem, a point the White House is considering as it weighs how to manage the waters.

“There does not appear to be a conflict between the biological resources there and the other natural resources,” he said. “This region is blessed with having all of these resources but not in conflict with one another, so all of the different interests could be met.”

On the amount of access indigenous people would have in the monument, Connaughton added that “freedom of navigation” would be assured under the plan if it moves ahead and noted that when the federal government established a similar monument in Hawaii several years ago, it made significant accommodations for native people.

“You as a culture are already there on conservation,” he said to one member of the crowd who had raised the issue. “What this could do is reflect that.”

Some critics of the monument proposal at the forum, however, remained skeptical after Connaughton's assurances. Rep. Ramon Tebuteb (R-Saipan) said the short period of time available in the twilight of President Bush's final term might be too little for the local community to come to grips with the issue and make a decision.

“Now we have a two-month grace period before the president leaves,” said Tebuteb. “Is that enough time for everybody to understand the pros and cons of this situation?”

And rather than declare the northern waters a monument, commercial fisherman David Lewis suggested the area should instead become a federal marine sanctuary, a designation he said would give more flexibility to his industry and others when it comes to the economic activities federal regulations would allow to take place there.

“I just think that the people here need to consider what they would be giving up,” he said. “In order for anything to change once you create a monument, it would require an act of Congress.”

Nevertheless, proponents of the monument pointed to a slew of prospective benefits the proposal might bring to the CNMI, such as an increase in tourism and new opportunities for federal funding. Deputy Labor Secretary Jacinta Kaipat, for example, who was raised on the island of Pagan near the monument's waters, said the plan could open up opportunities for indigenous people to resettle some of the northern islands with federal aid.

Kaipat added that the plan could give the CNMI's public image a boost.

“Let's get some good press for a change,” she said.

Restaurateur and former congressman Andrew Salas noted the monument could also help to heal the CNMI's relationship with the federal government after heated controversies over minimum wage and immigration laws.

“This is the beginning of repairing that relationship,” he said. “I hope that based on this, we can begin to develop some trust.”

But for Connaughton, a major incentive in establishing a monument in the CNMI is the rare and untouched coral reef ecosystem that it would contain, one that could give the world a bright example when it comes to how to manage reefs around the globe.

“This is not about t-shirts and signs,” he said, noting later that the diversity of life in the monument is richer than almost any other place on Earth. “This is the world's control for what a truly pristine coral community is supposed to look like. It has much to teach the rest of the world, so we have to do this right.”

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