CNMI TO AIR FORCE:
Torres asks Air Force to honor Covenant; begin negotiations for Tinian-only
The CNMI government insisted Friday for the U.S. Air Force to withdraw its plan to build a divert airfield on Saipan. According to the joint offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, the Air Force’s repeated desire to acquire more lands on Saipan runs counter to the legal foundations of the CNMI’s relationship with the United States. Instead, the CNMI government on Friday pointed to the two-thirds of land already leased on Tinian for defense purposes, for this divert airfield.
“The CNMI has acted in accordance with its end of the agreement,” acting governor Ralph DLG Torres said in his letter Friday, referring to the CNMI Covenant and its accompanying legal texts. “The United States has not.”
Torres said the divert project now threatens to undo the touchstone agreement upon which the people of the Northern Marianas Islands agreed to join the American family of states.
The Friday letter serves as the Office of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor’s official comments to the Air Force’s revised divert airfield project, for which environmental impact documents were released for public scrutiny last October.
U.S. Air Force officials have insisted that their revised plans for a project on Saipan—and another option called the “hybrid plan,” to split this project between Saipan and Tinian—have resulted in a smaller footprint on the scope of the project.
Fighter aircraft and their associated munitions from the original plan have been completely eliminated, the Air Force has said, with only aircraft likened to commercial airplanes flying in to Saipan for refueling.
Planned exercise flights have been reduced by more than 60 percent, the Air Force said, and the “hybrid option” would distribute operations between Saipan and Tinian and locate the majority of development on Tinian.
But Torres, in his letter, says the Air Force has missed the point.
“The Air Force’s effort to de-conflict the competing use problem and to design the facility it wants to build on Saipan in such a way as to allow future development misses the larger, more significant point,” Torres said.
‘Controlling legal documents’
In his letter, Torres acknowledges that the Air Force and other military interests for basing or training are particularly strong at the moment, given recent geopolitical developments, and the CNMI islands’ strategic location in the Western Pacific.
However, Torres argued that the founding officials of the CNMI government and their U.S. counterparts foresaw this exact turn of events when they negotiated the Covenant to establish the CNMI nearly 40 years ago.
The CNMI government entered into the Covenant agreement, and provided two-thirds of the island of Tinian and the entire island Farallon de Medinilla to the United States for military defense relations training and joint service air base activity purposes.
Torres said that “to counter any intentions or need to acquire additional real property in the CNMI, the United States agreed to ‘respect the scarcity and special importance of land in the Northern Marianas Islands’ in future developments and put in place a policy limiting eminent domain powers.”
He said this agreement to “restrict military activities to FDM and Tinian” is contained not only in the Covenant, but also in additional legal documents and leases.
Those documents also include a “Technical Agreement” that promised a future military-civilian society on Tinian, with shared movie theaters and access to the amenities of a planned base, among others. But these benefits—or a base—have never been realized, some 40 years after the fact.
The same leased lands are now eyed by the U.S. Marine Corps for high-impact live firing ranges.
Torres said Tinian “was ultimately going to benefit”—for leasing two-thirds of the island to the United States for 100 years—through this air base and its resulting infrastructure improvements.
“The CNMI has a good faith basis to expect that the divert project should be located entirely on the island of Tinian and, despite our repeated efforts to dissuade the military from including Saipan in its plan, the Revised DEIS continues to do so,” Torres said.
Torres said that because the “Tinian-only” divert option continues to be discounted by the military due to “monetary costs and timing reasons,” the CNMI must against “re-assert its limited sovereignty.”
“…And determination that defense related activities should be located on Tinian as explicitly intended and set out in the Covenant, the technical agreement, and the real property leases,” he added.
Torres asked that the military withdraw the Air Force’s modified Saipan alternative, and the hybrid modified alternative.
“The military’s desire to locate the divert project on Saipan places the CNMI in an awkward and uncomfortable position of appearing to oppose or obstruct the United States’ defense related responsibilities in the NMI,” Torres said. “This is not true.”
He writes that—as the modified Tinian alternative will require additional property rights through a lease agreement for the divert airport facility and training location—the CNMI is ready to begin negotiations toward that end.