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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Territorial sea, Rota Park bills move in Congress

The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee approved by unanimous consent Friday legislation conveying submerged lands to the Northern Mariana Islands and authorizing a study of the feasibility and suitability of a national park on Rota. The two bills were voted on as part of a group, most of which had been reported favorably in the last Congress and, in the case of the territorial sea and Rota Park bills, had been passed by the House of Representatives.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) thanked Natural Resources chair Doc Hastings for his decision to build on the work of the previous Congress by moving quickly on the group of 24 bills, which had already been thoroughly reviewed by the committee.

“Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Ed Markey worked together to make sure that bills from both sides of the aisle would be reported out of the Committee today, so they can be brought to the floor for a House vote—ideally in the next few weeks.

“I am most appreciative to both leaders, as well as to Chairman John Fleming of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Areas and Chairman Rob Bishop of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee, which subcommittees had jurisdiction over my two bills.”

Sablan is Ranking Member on the FWOIA Subcommittee and a member of the Public Land Subcommittee.

Sablan’s legislation conveying the submerged lands has twice passed the House unanimously, but both times stalled in the Senate. Sablan has kept working to get Senate approval, however. Earlier this year he asked the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to introduce a Senate companion to Sablan’s House bill. The Wyden/Murkowski legislation, S. 256, is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining on Thursday in Washington.

“I think the new Senate Committee chairman shares the view of Chairman Hastings that there are a number of bills—my own included—that we have thoroughly reviewed before and that we should take advantage of the work we have already been done and get these bills moving.

“I have been frustrated to see my bills get hung up in the legislative machinery. And I am not the only member of Congress is this situation. Many of us have noncontroversial, locally focused bills that need to be cleared off the agenda, so we can go on to other matters.”

The submerged lands issue arose when the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that the federal government owned all the near-shore waters around each of the Northern Mariana Islands. That was in February 2005. Within months Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona—now one of his state’s two senators—introduced a bill conveying the submerged lands to the Northern Marianas, as did Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico. When Sablan was elected to the House of Representatives in 2009 he took up the cause.

The Rota Cultural and Natural Resources Study Act has also passed the House twice, by voice vote in the 111th Congress and then by a recorded vote of 278-100 in the 112th. Sablan’s bill, H.R. 674, follows up on a preliminary study of Rota by the National Park Service in 2005 requested by former Rota senator Diego Songao. That study determined that the island preserves unique habitat for endangered species, as well as numerous, intact prehistoric sites, all of which are of “national significance.”

Because of Songao’s initiative and with the continuing advocacy of Rep. Teresita Santos and other Rota leaders, Sablan is now seeking a “suitability and feasibility” study, the next step toward designation of areas on Rota as part of the National Park System. (Office of the Delegate)

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