BUSH TO DECIDE ON CONTROVERSIAL CNMI MARINE RESERVE

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At question is 115,000 square
miles of ocean in Northern Marianas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 5, 2009) – President Bush is set to declare the fate of the proposed Mariana Trench Marine National Monument tomorrow at the White House, according to Friends of the Monument.

The group, the most ardent supporters of the project in the CNMI, was invited to attend the ceremony.

In a statement to media yesterday, Friends of the Monument said they expect Bush to issue his important remarks on conservation and environment and that they are optimistic that the President will approve the proposal.

"This will be the first time for all those invited to attend an event at the White House," the group noted.

Andrew Salas, vice chair of the group, said he always thought that Bush would designate the monument, which would cover 115,000 square miles encompassing the three islands of Maug, Asuncion, and Uracas in the northeastern part of the CNMI.

"But I can hardly believe that it is finally happening," noted Salas, a former member of Congress who is also invited to attend the declaration.

Last month, Salas was in Washington to convince White House officials as well as media people on the social and economic benefits that such a project would give to the people of the CNMI.

"After a year of back and forth in the letters to the editors section of the newspapers, endless numbers of public meetings, and hours spent collecting signatures we're finally going to get our monument," Salas said.

The group said in its statement that the invitation to the White House to witness the signing of the monument declaration comes amid media reports that Bush has considered scaling back the proposed area and protections they had been proposing-a project that has politically divided the people of the CNMI.

The group's chairman Ignacio V. Cabrera, who is a former director of Divisions of Environmental Quality, explained that when 6,000 residents signed a petition it was to protect the entire ecosystem.

"Our people want our monument to be big and we want the protections to be strong, " he said.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, his cabinet members, and most of the members of the CNMI Legislature are against the proposal because of what they fear as dislocating the economic wellbeing of the CNMI.

The Friends of the Monument petitioned the president to designate a large, no-take monument during the fall, and claimed to have gathered some 6,000 signatures from residents, as well as hundreds of letters from students, islands leaders, and businesses.

"Even though the protections and the scope of the monument are expected to be scaled down, the Friends are still appreciative of President Bush," the group said.

Agnes McPhetres, vice chair and former president of Northern Marianas College, said that if the monument is smaller than they have proposed it would just be amenable for them.

"We still applaud President Bush for taking the first step. The Marianas will still get a visitors' center, an enforcement boat, co-management, an advisory council to the monument, federal jobs, and loads of media attention," McPhetres noted.

She also said, however, that starting from the day he is sworn in, the group will lobby President Obama to come in and finish the job.

"We set out to protect an entire ecosystem and that is what we intend to do, " she said.

All the top leaders of Micronesia, including Palau, Guam, CNMI, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia have expressed their opposition to the proposed project.

They said that they have their own way of protecting their environment and that they are already committed with the Micronesia Challenge, which was a brainchild of outgoing President Tommy Remengesau with the aim to preserve 30 percent of near shore waters by 2020.

The Friends of the Monument said they have praise for the local officials who worked with the White House on the designation.

"Our leaders in the Executive Branch and the Legislature Branch have worked tirelessly on this issue. After the very large public meeting back in October there were lots of conversations going back and forth between Saipan and Washington and from what I have heard the monument we are going to get on Tuesday is something that addresses most if not all of our local leaders' concerns. They are to be commended for doing their job," said Angelo Villagomez, co-founder of Beautify CNMI.

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