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Monday, April 21, 2014

House resolution opposes marine monument plan
Lawmakers want more dialogue on the issue

Vice-Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero gestures as he delivers his remarks on the monument proposal during Wednesday’s session at the House Chamber on Capital Hill. (Jacqueline Hernandez) The CNMI House of Representatives passed a resolution by an overwhelming majority Wednesday, opposing a plan that would designate a vast swath of nearby ocean water as a national marine monument.

The resolution, passed in a 15-3 vote, says the proposed monument—which would encompass the northern islands of Maug, Asuncion and Uracas—will bar local people’s access to the region, that the waters in question are already protected by CNMI regulators and that the proposal has become a divisive issue in the community.

President Bush recently directed federal agencies to conduct an assessment of the waters at issue to determine their suitability as a marine monument, a process that is slated to start in the near future. The CNMI’s waters are competing with two other proposed sites for status as a monument.

“The designation of the CNMI marine monument would be a permanent and nearly irrevocable federal action that rightfully should require the consideration of the needs and opinions of the people of the CNMI and the potential lost opportunities for economic benefit to the CNMI,” the resolution says, noting that the Legislature “strongly opposes” the plan.

In an interview, Rep. Ramon Tebuteb (R-Saipan), the resolution’s sponsor, said that the intent behind it is to call for a hold on the monument proposal to give the local community time to consider it. Tebuteb added that the CNMI government, like others in Micronesia, has take significant strides in conserving its natural resources.

“We have yet to really know what are the details of this proposal,” he said. “All we’re saying is that there seems to be a lot of push for this. But what is the proposal?”

Pointing to the marine monument Bush established in Hawaii’s waters earlier in his presidency, which took several years to finalize, Tebuteb added that proponents of the plan have rushed to see it completed.

“We’re not shutting the door here,” he said. “What we’re saying is hold on now. Couldn’t we be at least afforded a couple of years?”

Passage of the resolution, however, came with some dissent from House lawmakers who are backing the plan. Rep. Edward Salas (R-Saipan), in a letter sent the same day to House Speaker Arnold Palacios, said the monument could bolster the local tourism industry and conserve a fragile ecosystem for future generations.

Salas pointed to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust that estimates the CNMI could see $10 million annually in economic benefits linked to the monument.

“Mr. Speaker and colleagues, I ask you, why shut off a dialogue with the federal government before it starts?” Salas said. “The federal key players will be here in a few short weeks. Let us work together, talk to them and tell them what we want for our islands and not shut the door before this process starts.”

Meanwhile, Ike Cabrera, former director for the Department of Environmental Quality and spokesman for the Friends of the Monument, a newly formed group supporting the proposal, encouraged lawmakers to reconsider their stance on the plan, saying young people in the CNMI are widely in favor of it.

“They should give the federal government a chance to do the assessment and bring the discussion to a public meeting,” he said. “I don’t think they should make this decision by themselves.”

Public meetings on the issue, he added, would give local residents a chance to voice their opinions.

“All we want to do is be friendly and open it up,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for our community and our youth.”

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