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Proposal to skirt sensitive sites gets cool reception

By Brett Kelman HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Dec. 3, 2010) - Assistant Secretary of the Navy Jackalyne Pfannenstiel asked the mayors a question: If the military can build a firing range off Route 15, but can keep Pågat open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, would the controversy fade?

She didn’t get much of an answer.

Pfannenstiel ended a two-day trip to Guam yesterday, and a meeting with the Mayors’ Council of Guam was one of many with local leaders. Pfannenstiel, a key player in military buildup decisions, said she had come to Guam on a "listening tour."

"We are committed to doing it in a way where we move forward with Guam as a partner," she told the mayors. "There is no way this is going to work; there is no way we will have a buildup where the Marines come to Guam, unless it’s in partnership with the people of Guam."

The meeting didn’t go far before the controversial issue of the Route 15 firing range came up. The military’s preferred plan is to build the firing range along the road’s eastern edge so Marines can train there daily.

This plan has drawn heavy criticism from politicians and protesters alike since that area includes the ancient village site of PÃ¥gat and PÃ¥gat Cave.

Military has given assurances that the cultural sites won’t be harmed and the public will be able to visit almost every day, but protesters have filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the range.

Pfannenstiel said yesterday she couldn’t talk about the lawsuit, but she did offer a heavy concession on the firing range plans. Pfannenstiel said the military was looking for a way to adjust plans for the firing range so that PÃ¥gat would never be out of reach.

According to current plans, the public couldn’t go to PÃ¥gat when some of the gun ranges -- such as the machine gun range -- were in use, because of the tiny chance a stray bullet could be a danger.

But maybe that could change, Pfannenstiel said.

"If that access was unimpeded, if there was no constraint at all at getting to the caves and the village, would that make an enormous difference?" she asked. "Would that then remove the opposition for using that area for the training ranges?"

Most of the mayors didn’t say specifically if they believed this compromise would allay public concerns about the firing range. Yigo Vice Mayor Ron Flores said he was opposed to the military absorbing any more northern land, PÃ¥gat or not.

Flores said the Department of Defense had enough land, and if they couldn’t build a firing range on land they already had, they should give some back.

"You guys have a lot of property in your inventory. Why does it seem that you need more? You are taking the land away from the people, and the people need the land. They need their heritage, tradition and culture," Flores said at the meeting. "That’s what you are taking away from us."

And Flores isn’t the only objector with that mindset.

Victoria Leon Guerrero and Leevin Camacho, both of whom are leaders of protest group We Are Guåhan, have each said previously that they oppose any firing range in the area at all, regardless of whether the military guarantees access to Pågat.

Joe Quinata, of the Guam Preservation Trust, said he also believes the military should look at alternative sights, regardless of whether access to PÃ¥gat can be preserved.

Their protests and lawsuit are not about preserving access once the military takes control of the land, they’ve said, but that the military should never take the land to begin with.

Even though protesters might oppose the range as a whole, it’s unclear if the public will accept a firing range on Route 15 if PÃ¥gat is not affected, said Bryan Wood, director of the Pacific Division Headquarters Marine Corps.

If this concession can satisfy public concerns, and military can figure out how to adjust the ranges as needed, most of the conflict over the range could be resolved, Wood said.

"We are trying to look at every possible concept to determine if we can arrange the ranges so we can eliminate the danger of any fragment going down there, or make it so infinitesimal that it is practically eliminated," Wood said. "We’re trying to find a way to do it."

According to several press releases, Pfannenstiel also held meetings with Sens. Tina Muna-Barnes, Frank Blas Jr. and Judith Guthertz yesterday. Pfannenstiel met with Gov.-elect Eddie Calvo the day before.

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