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By Marconi Calindas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 24) – A signature campaign to block the approval of the impending monorail project at one of the tourist spots in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) has garnered over 1,000 signatories.

Environmental advocate Angelo Villagomez provided Saipan Tribune yesterday a copy of the names of the 1,000-plus individuals-tourists, business leaders, professionals, and Commonwealth residents-who have signed up to express their opposition to the proposed monorail project at the Grotto in Marpi, considered one of the best diving spots in the world.

Villagomez said the petition drive to "save the Grotto" started in June last year, initiated by Mark Robertson, an optometrist and underwater photographer. Villagomez said at least 25 CNMI residents started the petition drive.

Villagomez said the response from the community has been "very overwhelming." Half of the generated signatures are mostly of Japanese divers who expressed that they want Grotto to remain as is, he added.

The group leading the signature drive continues to receive more online support through the website, ,Villagomez said the website contains all news articles, letters to the editors and other related materials about the pending project for the Grotto.

"If they go through with this [project], expect a lot of people who will be against it," added Villagomez.

The cover letter of the documents containing the names of the supporters contains the statement: "We the undersigned are aware of a proposal to build a mechanical monorail inside the Grotto. We are concerned that this project will inflict permanent damage to the environment and the local diving industry. We find the risk to this natural and cultural treasure unnecessary and unacceptable and oppose this project."

Soken Home Saipan Corp., a Japanese-owned company, has been seeking approval from the CNMI government since June 2006 to build a monorail that would carry people up and down the Grotto's slope. The Division of Fish and Wildlife tentatively approved Soken Home Saipan Corp.'s plan.

The CNMI government has assured that the tentative approval is only intended to begin the permitting process, and should not be taken as a "go" signal for the project to begin.

Located in the Bird Island area, the Grotto is designated by law as a sanctuary and is under DFW management.

The Fitial administration expressed its full backing to the proposed monorail at the Grotto in August 2006, giving assurances that all environmental and legal concerns would be addressed.

"We will not railroad this project. We will look at all angles. There are pros and cons," said Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez.

Villagomez said the Grotto and Managaha Island are two world-class tourist sites that should be enjoyed by everyone, including people who are physically challenged. The monorail would give them access to see the Grotto, he said in an earlier interview. describes the Grotto as "a beautiful sunken pool connected to the ocean by underwater passages. The sunlight shining on the ocean outside the cave gives the water its amazing deep blue color with typical visibility of 100 plus feet. The Saipan Grotto is one of Saipan's best diving spots [and] considered by many as one of the best shore cavern dives in the world."

Saipan Tribune

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