PAGAN—Pagan Island in the Northern Islands has remained cut off for many years because there is only one mode of transportation available to reach it—by boat.
Its 200-mile distance from Saipan translates to 20 hours of sea travel to Pagan and the boat trip is not regular, highly dependent as it is on the weather. That has made urgent the request of Northern Islands residents to have the air strip on Pagan rebuilt.
According to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, a plan to clear the runway on Pagan is in the pipeline. “We have been working with the Commonwealth Ports Authority and Federal Aviation Administration about that. In the next couple of weeks, I should be holding a meeting with CPA to ask an update on that project up north regarding the runway,” he said.
Torres said his office has been meeting with the Northern Islands Mayor’s Office and their priority is establishing reliable transportation between Saipan and Pagan.
“It’s hard up north especially with the bad weather in September and October, that is why it’s very difficult to have a vessel,” he said.
The CNMI government’s next option is to develop an airport there. However, Torres acknowledges that the Pagan runway has to at least be cleared to obtain Federal Aviation Administration approval.
Torres is very much aware of the challenges that face Pagan. He has been on trips to the island starting when he was a child.
“My dad has been going there in the mid-’70s and encourages us boys in the family to go up north. Now I want to bring my kids and the first lady sometime in our lives as I would like us to spend one whole summer there because it is something that our children will enjoy and must experience,” he said.
“We want to preserve Pagan… I actually encourage legislators to go up north to experience the islands first-hand—not to just land on it but walk around, see the natural beauty and many resources of the island so that they will know exactly what they are fighting for,” he added.
An agricultural homestead is being finalized as a means for Pagan’s economic development.
“I know that the Department of Public Lands sent a surveyor down there last year and early this year. We want to establish a settlement, whether agricultural homestead or homestead program, but between the two, agricultural is easy to do at this point,” Torres said.
“It’s a beautiful island and I love it up there. I am hoping to have that offered to the community,” he added.
The U.S. Department of Defense eyes Pagan as a venue for U.S. military training and reports claim that the Pentagon wants to use the island for target practice.
“When the military came and showed interest, I told them it’s not just an island for you to do training. This island is sentimental to us. It’s not just ‘let’s bomb it’…it’s definitely more than that because it’s about preserving it for our future, for the new generation,” Torres said.
“The issue is, how can we make it work? If the military is coming, how can we still sustain the beauty of the island and we have to determine what kind of military training is acceptable to the island…We are not saying we don’t want military here. What we are saying is, what kind of training is acceptable for the community? So far, the proposed training style is not acceptable,” Torres added.
Torres is aware of the vulnerability of the Northern Islands in terms of the presence of illegal fishing by both U.S. and foreign vessels. That’s why he supports the idea of establishing a sanctuary in the Northern Islands, similar to the Marianas Trench Marine Monument.
“We need enforcement and, right now, we don’t have the resources to go after those illegal fishing vessels that are coming in. The U.S. Coast Guard’s priority is provide safety as when they respond to distressed vessels or if someone is drowning,” he said.
“We really want to have our own vessel that can monitor those vessels and I hope that someday we will have the resources to do that. …Maintaining a vessel in that capacity such as maintaining the crew, insurance, and gas cost a lot. We are also looking at our crew’s safety once we get on board on those illegal fishing vessels. These are the issues that we are addressing now,” he added.