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Officials see solution to Pagat controversy

By Gemma Q. Casas HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Variety, Oct. 21, 2010) – Northern Marianas’ third largest island of Tinian may have its proposed four firing ranges expanded to take the place of Guam’s Pagat amid residents’ strong lobby to spare it from military buildup activities because of its historical significance to the indigenous people.

Tinian Mayor Ray Dela Cruz said the military purposely delayed plans to build the Pagat firing range because their island is being considered to host it.

"We know that they (military officials) pretty much delayed the construction of the firing range in the Pagat area in Guam. I know that there is a serious consideration in actually expanding the Tinian firing range to include the firing range in Pagat," Dela Cruz told the Variety yesterday during a session break at the day-long Center for Micronesian Empowerment-led conference on "The Untapped Potential of the Marianas & Micronesian Workforce" held at the Marriott.

The Record of Decision for the buildup signed on Sept. 20 states that training operations on Tinian would support up to company-level sustainment for Marine Corps forces on Guam.

"Because Guam cannot accommodate all training for the relocating Marine Corps forces, Tinian, which is approximately 100 miles away and has greater land availability, provides the best opportunities for training groups of 200 Marines or larger, the next step of the training continuum," it stated.

Northern Marianas Governor Benigno Fitial backed off from the event due to back pains, according to the mayor who was part of a small contingent who represented the commonwealth in the event that also drew participants from the nearby island nations associated with the U.S.

U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Tony Babauta, FSM President Emanuel Mori, among other dignitaries, showed up at the event.

"Unfortunately, he (Fitial) wasn’t able to show up. You know, the governor is having serious back pains," the mayor said.

Fitial underwent a series of surgeries to correct his spinal stenosis -- the narrowing of the cells in the spinal column which is common among the elderly.

Early this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked the District Court of the Northern Marianas to call for an evidentiary hearing after Fitial’s masseuse, a former garment worker from China who was implicated in a foiled smuggling attempt to Guam, was taken out of the local jail to massage him in his residence.

The U.S. Marshalls was not informed before the masseuse was taken out of the jail. Local police escorted her to the governor’s residence.

In a separate interview, Retired Major General David Bice, executive director of the Joint Guam Program Office, said feasibility studies are being done to expand firing range sites not just on Tinian but on Pagan as well, an uninhabited volcanic island in the northernmost part of the CNMI.

"We’re going to be building four ranges on Tinian to support the Marines. There is a follow-up study to be looking throughout the CNMI, including additional ranges on Tinian as well as potential ranges on Pagan Island or other places too," the general said in a separate interview.

"This is part of the Pacific-wide study in terms of looking at our range of alignment throughout the Pacific. It’s not only the CNMI but the Pacific as well," he added.

The U.S. has military jurisdiction over the Freely Associated States which include Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

The general said Route 15 is the preferred fire training range on Guam which is near the historic Pagat.

The Guam Preservation Trust nominated PÃ¥gat village to America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places which is a program of the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Bice said the military will soon conclude its talks about the Pagat firing range with Guam in accordance with Section 106 of the International Historic Preservation Act.

Pagat is an ancient Chamorro village, a sacred ancestral home of the indigenous people, with relics that date back to centuries ago.

The buildup involves relocating 8,600 Marines from Okinawa, Japan and their families to Guam. The first contingent is expected to be here by 2012.

Japan and the U.S. agreed to spend at least US$10 billion to build infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the relocating troops.

This year, the two countries already agreed to release US$1 billion to jumpstart some of the projects.

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