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Senate next after unanimous House approval

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 5, 2011) –Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan's (Ind-MP) bill conveying 3 miles of submerged lands to the CNMI now heads to the U.S. Senate after the U.S. House of Representatives passed it Monday by a unanimous vote of 397-0, drawing applause from CNMI officials, although some of them want the Commonwealth to eventually own submerged lands 200 miles out from the shoreline.

Sablan said that H.R. 670 provides equity to the CNMI people because the Northern Marianas is the only one among U.S. coastal areas that does not control its own submerged lands.

In the previous Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) put a "hold" on a similar CNMI submerged lands bill, using it as a bargaining chip for an Arizona lands bill he wanted enacted. When McCain finally released the bill, it was too late for action before Congress adjourned.

Sablan said that HR 670's passage "would put the CNMI government in charge" of lands 3 miles out from the shoreline of its 14 islands.

The bill's number is coincidentally also the CNMI's area code of "670."

Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday that Gov. Benigno R. Fitial "is pleased to learn that U.S. Congress agrees with the Commonwealth as evidenced in the bill's passage."

Fitial submitted in May his written testimony in support of HR 670, which he said "finally afford[s] the people of the CNMI with the sense of equality it has pursued in an effort to seek equal footing with the coastal states and territories of the United States."

"All the other states and territories of the United States have long been granted and have long enjoyed the full right, title, and interest in their adjacent submerged lands," he said in his testimony.

The governor had said the CNMI should be afforded the same rights granted to all coastal American states under the Submerged Lands Act, which includes 27 percent of all federal rents, royalties, and revenues paid annually to coastal states and full right to 3 miles of submerged lands.

Fitial told Congress that HR 670 will help the CNMI in its efforts to protect and conserve its pristine natural resources.

"Although scarce in land, the adjacent waters and submerged lands of the CNMI are abundant in natural resources and marine life," he said. "Maintaining the health and abundance of the reef and sea is critical to the economy of the CNMI. Tourists come to enjoy its sights while people depend on a steady supply of fish for their sustenance and diets."

Sablan, in his statement of support for HR 670, used the example of Louisiana to demonstrate the important role that submerged lands could have for economic development.

He said in 2006, Louisiana leased 392,118 acres of its submerged lands for oyster harvest, profiting the state and providing an economic opportunity for holders of 8,167 leases.

"Other coastal jurisdictions have similar stories to tell about the important role that coastal lands and waters can play in creating jobs and contributing to the economy," Sablan said.

Since a 2005 court ruling, the federal government has controlled all the lands and waters right up to shoreline of the Northern Marianas.

"The federal government does nothing with the potential of these lands. H.R. 670 would put the local government in charge. We would be free to develop offshore wind farms or other energy alternatives, and responsible for protecting the rare marine environment, which is both our legacy and trust, and also makes our islands alluring to tourists," he added.

Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) and Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan) congratulated Sablan for moving a submerged lands bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The CNMI government is pursuing this for many years. .There's light at the end of the tunnel," Manglona said.

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