The CNMI Senate asked President Barack Obama yesterday to delay a proclamation withholding or exempting conveyance to the CNMI of submerged lands surrounding five of its 14 islands so that issues can be considered through Covenant Section 902 talks, on the heels of separate requests from Gov. Eloy S. Inos and CNMI House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) for the president to amend his draft proclamation.
Some officials, however, conceded that last-minute appeals from the CNMI may just be “an exercise in futility,” considering that Obama only has until Jan. 16 (Jan. 17, CNMI time) to withhold conveyance of submerged lands to the CNMI.
In adopting Senate Resolution 18-23 yesterday afternoon, senators asked Obama to impose a 180-day sunset provision to resolve issues and to include the CNMI government and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) in the Covenant Section 902 discussion.
If Obama signs this week a draft presidential proclamation in its current form, the CNMI still won’t have control over submerged lands surrounding five of its 14 islands: Farallon de Pajaros (Uracas), Maug, Asuncion, Farallon De Medinilla, and Tinian.
The first three islands are part of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument established in 2009, while the last two are under lease to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan clarified that the president will not be signing any proclamation transferring submerged lands to the CNMI because Public Law 113-34, signed in September 2013, automatically conveys all the submerged lands around the CNMI islands to the Commonwealth.
The law, however, does give Obama 120 days to withhold conveyance of some of the lands, if he decides there is a federal interest in doing so, Sablan said.
“And the deadline for him to do that is Jan. 16,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.
The CNMI Senate, in its adopted resolution, requests Obama to delay the proclamation regarding the submerged lands around the Marine National Monument, Tinian, and FDM and impose a 180-day sunset provision “which would require the parties to reach an agreement on a co-management plan and also to include a mutually agreeable process to have any outstanding issues resolved.”
Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan), original author of the resolution that later became authored by the whole CNMI Senate, conceded that while the resolution may be too late, it shows that the body has made its position known.
He said the CNMI should not stop advocating for control of its own submerged lands.
Delegate Sablan, meanwhile, said the proclamation that President Bush signed after negotiation with then-governor Benigno R. Fitial creating the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument did anticipate that the submerged lands around Maug, Uracas and Farallon de Pajaros in the Monument might not be conveyed to the Commonwealth “until there was an agreement between the Commonwealth and the federal government on how those submerged lands would be managed.”
“And the Obama administration, in testifying on my submerged lands bill, said the same thing. So I think it can be expected that President Obama will withhold conveyance of the submerged lands in the Monument temporarily, while the management agreement is being worked out,” Sablan said.
He said if that happens, the congressional office “will certainly encourage both the Obama administration and the Commonwealth government to put some energy behind completing an agreement, so the submerged lands in the Monument can be transferred to the Northern Mariana Islands.”
Sablan also understand that the U.S. military has some concerns about how the CNMI’s ownership of submerged lands around Tinian and FDM might affect training activities.
“But the lease of those lands actually already includes the offshore waters; and military training activities have been going on for three decades under terms of that lease,” he said.
Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday that “if the United States is amenable to considering Gov. Inos’ request to set a deadline and procedure to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, then that would save more time than having to put submerged lands on hold to convene 902 talks.”
The governor wrote a letter to Obama raising concerns about exempting certain submerged lands from conveyance to the CNMI.
Inos also wrote a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, raising concerns on the submerged lands.
In that letter, Inos said there is no established period of time within which the written agreements must be completed and there is no procedure to resolve a situation in which negotiations have failed between the parties to reach a mutually agreeable written agreement.
“This means in effect that should the CNMI fail to reach appropriate written agreements with our federal counterparts, then the submerged lands around Tinian and Farallon de Medinilla and the Marine National Monument might never actually pass to the CNMI,” Inos told Pritzker and Jewell.
On Monday, CNMI House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) also wrote a letter to Obama, requesting that the “reservation” language in the draft proclamation be omitted entirely.
In the alternative, he asks that the final proclamation include language that sets a procedure for resolving disputes in the event that a mutual resolution is not reached between the CNMI and the relevant federal departments, and sets deadline for reaching agreements regarding the conveyance of the lands at issue.
At Sablan’s request, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski introduced S. 256 or the submerged lands legislation that became law. It gives the CNMI control of the underwater coasts of its islands. The CNMI became the last U.S. coastal state or territory to own its offshore lands.