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Historic bill expected to win Senate approval

By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, July 17, 2009) - The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed on Wednesday a measure conveying to the Northern Marianas control to three of its 200-mile submerged lands -- a historic decision that local officials hope would usher better cooperation between local and federal governments.

With a vote of 416-0, H.R. 934 passed the lower House of the U.S. Congress and now goes to the U.S. Senate, which is expected to make a similar favorable action.

CNMI Congressman Gregorio "Kilili" Camacho Sablan, who is the first representative in Congress from the islands, introduced the bill.

"This is an important victory for the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. We had always believed the lands and waters around our islands were our own – until the US courts ruled otherwise," said Sablan in a statement.

The CNMI attempted to gain full control of its 200 miles exclusive economic zone or submerged lands but it lost its legal battle in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review its appeal on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ adverse ruling. Acting Governor Eloy Inos said the passage of H.R. 934 in the House is a "victory" for the people of the CNMI.

"We lost our case when we took the submerged lands issue in litigation and so we’re back to zero ownership. Then the proposal came that we would want to have more than three miles. Then H.R. 934 was introduced by Delegate Sablan. We do support that….," said Inos in a press conference held yesterday.

"This is definitely a victory for the Northern Marianas. We would like to see more than three miles but that probably is something that we would have to talk about in the future," he added.

Sablan said the U.S. lawmakers’ favorable action on the bill is a "giant step" for the people of the Northern Marianas, a self-governing commonwealth of the United States since 1976.

"For at least 3,500 years the Chamorro and Refaluwasch people have lived on these islands and fished and sailed in the waters around them. These lands and waters have always been an integral part of our existence, essential to our well-being and livelihood, and to our sense of who we are. Now we have taken a giant step toward placing those lands back in the hands of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands, where ownership rightfully belongs," he said.

Press Secretary Charles Reyes Jr. said the administration expects the CNMI to reap the same benefits that other insular areas have -- American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam -- which also have a three-mile jurisdiction on their submerged lands.

Only Puerto Rico has control over a nine-mile zone of its submerged lands because of its treaty with the Spanish government in the 17th century.

Although the islands have limited control over their submerged lands, officials said they can use the 1996 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to benefit from it economically.

This Act allows U.S. territories to enter into "negotiating agreements with foreign fishing companies and (collect) a portion of any permitting fees, or fines and penalties collected under such agreements."

Nick J. Rahall, D-WV, Chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, which had jurisdiction over the bill, was among those who expressed praise over the House’ affirmative action.

"Passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of this submerged lands legislation was among the highest legislative priorities of the first-ever delegate from the CNMI – my friend and colleague Gregorio "Kilili" Sablan," Rahall said in a statement.

"I applaud Delegate Sablan for the hard work he has undertaken over the past several months to advance his first introduced bill, achieve this unanimous legislative victory, and ensure that these submerged lands are rightfully conveyed to the people of the CNMI."

Sablan thanked Guam Congresswoman Madeleine Z. Bordallo who chairs the U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife for her leadership on H.R. 934 and on the "many matters pertaining to the insular areas and to the Marianas Archipelago Islands that we represent here in Congress."

It was Bordallo who presided over a hearing on the bill in February.

Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, who was an original co-sponsor of H.R. 934, also spoke in favor of its passage.

"This is a good bill. It’s a bill that some of us have worked on for years to ensure that the submerged lands are where they belong, that the ownership is there, and that the rights that accrue to that attain to the Northern Marianas," he said.

Sablan withdraw the bill early this month after local leaders failed to reach a consensus on whether or not they will support H.R. 934.

Last week, however, Governor Benigno R. Fitial, Speaker Arnold I. Palacios and Senate President Pete P. Reyes came up with a common stand to support the bill.

This came after they were assured that if the bill is enacted into law, the people of the CNMI will have the option to exercise full control over the submerged lands surrounding the three northernmost islands of Maug, Asuncion and Uracas which form part of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument or decide to include those within the monument under a co-management system with the federal government.

These options are embodied in the proclamation that established the marine monument.

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