Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) has again introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives conveying ownership of the lands and water surrounding each of the 14 islands in the Northern Marianas to the people of the Commonwealth. This is the third time Sablan has authored legislation for this purpose. In the 111th and 112th Congresses his bills passed the House without dissent, 419-0 and 397-0 respectively. But both times the legislation died in the Senate.
“I have already met with the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Ron Wyden of Oregon,” Sablan reports. “The bill will come to his committee and will need his support.
“I explained that this is a noncontroversial, no-cost bill that has already received ample review in previous Congresses. The House has voted twice. The [Obama] administration has testified in support. We have had sponsorship from both sides of the aisle in the House and in the Senate.
“I can't predict the future. But I am hopeful about the prospects for passage in this Congress.”
In the 111th Congress, after passing the House of Representatives, Sablan's bill received a favorable report from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and was included in a larger lands bill, America's Great Outdoors act of 2010, assembled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada). But the Senate failed to act on the measure.
In the 112th Congress Sablan's proposal again passed the House. In addition, then Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a companion bill, S. 590, at Sablan's request, which received a favorable hearing. But, again, the Senate failed to act before adjournment.
“One lesson I have learned from veteran Members of Congress is that success requires persistence,” said Sablan. “And I certainly will keep pushing this legislation until we get the same ownership and management authority for the waters and lands around our islands as every other U.S. coastal jurisdiction has.”
In 1999 the Commonwealth government filed a court action under the Quiet Title Act to clarify ownership of the submerged lands around the islands. In 2003 the Federal District Court for the Northern Marianas held that the Commonwealth did not have title to the lands. That decision was upheld in 2005 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider the lower courts' decisions, leaving ownership effectively with the U.S. government. (PR)