SAIPAN, Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands --
Residents on Tinian and Saipan gathered information and submitted comments recently during public scoping meetings regarding proposed development of live-fire ranges and training areas on Tinian and Pagan islands in CNMI.
The meetings, which concluded April 12, allowed government officials to provide information, answer questions and seek public input on the current preliminary alternatives proposed in the CNMI Joint Military Training Environmental Impact Statement and Overseas EIS. The current proposal includes three unit-level training alternatives for Tinian and two combined-level training alternatives for Pagan.
As the U.S. looks to rebalance forces in the Pacific, military studies have identified a large number of joint training deficiencies in the Western Pacific. This U.S. Pacific Command initiative seeks to reduce these deficiencies with appropriate ranges and training areas to ensure military forces can meet their mandate to train combat-ready forces to execute operations capable of winning wars, deter aggression, maintain freedom of the seas, and provide humanitarian and other support to civilian governments.
Project officials will continue collecting public input and collaborating with federal and local agencies throughout this National Environmental Policy Act process to determine the best alternatives for Tinian and Pagan, with a final decision scheduled for release in 2016.
"NEPA is about a three-year process, and we are right at the beginning,"
said Craig Whelden, executive director for Marine Forces Pacific. "The purpose of this visit we've done ... was to demonstrate to the local population what we have in mind and listen to them to see what kind of alternatives, what kind of comments they have, what concerns they have, so that we can start refining our courses of action."
An EIS is prepared when a proposed federal action has the potential for significant effects on the natural or human environment and analyzes the potential direct, indirect and cumulative effects of the proposed action. An OEIS is prepared when a proposed action goes beyond 12 nautical miles from the coastline and is included in this proposal because of the danger zones surrounding the islands during military training activities.
Throughout the week, government officials also met with regulatory agencies, key stakeholders and elected officials to discuss the proposal, such as the National Park Service, the Department of Public Lands, the CNMI Department of Cultural and Community Affairs, and the CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Local residents were able to voice their concerns and ideas through these meetings and the open-house-format scoping sessions, providing important information to scoping officials. Whelden said nobody knows the area better than the residents who live there, so it's important to listen to them and take into account everything they can provide in order to fine-tune the alternatives and determine the best course of action.
Members of the Tinian Cattlemen's Association raised their concerns and even provided suggestions for solutions, as cattle owners on the island currently use government-leased land for grazing areas.
"Our primary concern would be to try to convince the military to incorporate the cattle industry into their planning so that we can hopefully coexist on this property that we are developing," said Jose Dela Cruz, president of the Tinian Cattlemen's Association. "The beef industry here on the island is very important; it's a food commodity, and we feel it is one way of contributing to our local economy."
Additional concerns focused on airspace limitations, access to areas on Tinian used for tourism, and access to Pagan, where an active volcano forced the sparse population to leave the island in 1981. A handful of people currently live on Pagan, despite the ongoing volcanic danger, and former residents enjoy visiting the island periodically.
Residents who participated in the scoping meetings said they liked having project representatives on-hand to answer questions and appreciated the opportunity to voice their concerns.
"I really appreciate (these representatives) coming here and hearing our side, our views on this property," said Dela Cruz. "We understand clearly (the property on Tinian) is leased by the military, but at the same time, coming here and giving us the opportunity to contribute, to have a say in this is a wonderful thing."
Steven Lee is a concerned citizen on Saipan who lived for a time on Pagan with his family and has connections to those few still residing there. He said he attended one meeting to ask questions and gather information from officials, stating he is concerned about preserving the beautiful island and the history his family and others have with the island.
"Everything I asked, they answered my questions and gave me more information," explained Lee. "I just want (officials) to think about it, and I hope the military and the government here in Saipan listen to us and give us a chance to say what we want to say. That's why I came to scoping."
Leaders on both Saipan and Tinian, such as Saipan Senator Pete Reyes, CNMI Senate, and Ramon Dela Cruz, mayor of the municipality of Tinian and Aguiguan, echoed some of the concerns of local residents, but also confirmed their support of military training on the islands and their desire to work with military officials to benefit civilian and military interests.
Those who were not able to attend the meetings can still submit comments through the online form available at http://www.cnmijointmilitarytrainingeis.com/ or through mail-in comments sent to the following address:
Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific
Attn: EV21, CNMI Joint Military Training EIS/OEIS Project Manager
258 Makalapa Drive, Suite 100
JBPHH, HI 96860-3134
All comments must be postmarked or received online by May 13, Chamorro Standard Time.
Scoping is an early stage of the NEPA process and plays an important role in building the foundation for positive relationships between the military and local residents in the future.
"The public needs to know we want to be good neighbors, ultimately,"
said Whelden. "And the reason this is a three-year process is because we need to study it, we need to conduct the analysis that's required, based on what we hear from them. We hope that at the end of the three year period, we come up with an alternative that's a win-win for everybody."
Log onto http://www.cnmijointmilitarytrainingeis.com/ for more information and updates on the CNMI Joint Military Training EIS/OEIS.