U.S. Military Eyes 50-Year Lease Around Saipan Airport, Seaport

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CNMI official prefer location on Tinian

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 25, 2013) – The U.S. military is eyeing at least a 50-year lease of lands within and around the Saipan airport and seaport covering some 33 acres for a U.S. Air Force alternative airfield on Saipan. CNMI officials, however, insist on having the divert airfield on Tinian, barely a few weeks before the release of a final environmental impact statement, officials confirmed with Saipan Tribune.

Although the EIS and the Record of Decision have yet to be released, the U.S. Air Force’s Legislative Liaison said the Air Force still prefers to build the divert airfield on Saipan and that "the phases cannot be separated between two different locations" such as Saipan and Tinian.

Some of the lands on Saipan that the military plans to lease are part of historic sites, including the pre-war Japanese airfield in As Lito.

Many of the Saipan lands being eyed for lease, however, are not being used right now.

Two-thirds of public lands on Tinian are already leased to the U.S. Department of Defense for 99 years.

"A planned 50-year land lease by the military on Saipan is something that the CNMI is carefully reviewing. There are legal questions, and questions about impacts on the commercial activities at the airport, the environment and mitigation, historic sites and social impacts," Lands and Natural Resources Secretary Arnold Palacios told Saipan Tribune when sought for comment yesterday.

Palacios, along with other officials, said the CNMI, particularly the Commonwealth Ports Authority and the Department of Public Lands, has not decided yet on any military plan to lease Saipan lands.

Press secretary Angel Demapan, in responding to Saipan Tribune questions yesterday, said the administration would like further discussion on this with all the stakeholders, "including the people of the Commonwealth and most especially the residents of Koblerville and Dandan."

"There is no commitment at this point. The administration will exercise due diligence in any discussion of this nature to ensure that the concerns of the community are prioritized before a final decision is made," Demapan said.

As to whether Covenant 902 talks could be invoked, Demapan said, "All options are on the table at this time."

Palacios said a lot of questions were raised during last week’s briefings, including the continued insistence to put a divert airfield on Saipan rather than on Tinian, but the military representatives who met with CNMI officials were not in a position to answer many of those questions.

Other questions included whether CPA or the CNMI people want to lock down expansion of the Saipan airport for 50 years, and who and how will the decision to lease these lands be made, and whether the Legislature, for example, would have a role in this.

The military has yet to formally request a 50-year lease at this time but already briefed the CNMI about the plan last week.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) separately said yesterday that CNMI officials still prefer a divert airfield on Tinian, and that it’s time for the United States to honor its commitment to develop Tinian.

"When they leased the lands on Tinian, there was an understanding they would invest in developing the island for the military and for the local economy. If you go back to the Covenant, the United States still has not lived up to its commitment to develop Tinian. Here is an opportunity for them to do so," the speaker said.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos and other CNMI officials, including his Cabinet members and lawmakers, received briefings from the U.S. Pacific Air Forces or PACAF representatives on the divert airfield and other issues on Thursday but some details were kept under wraps for days, including the military’s 50-year lease plan.

PACAF oversees all U.S. Air Force commands in the Pacific region.

Among the PACAF representatives in the briefings were Carol Guadette, Christine, Pascus, and Robert Cambell. They provided a follow-up brief to the CNMI Military Integration Management Committee, which is composed of CNMI leaders and various department heads, of the divert airfield project’s status.

Outgoing MIMC coordinator Jose P. Mafnas Jr. told reporters last week that it was "strictly an informative briefing. No decisions were made."

The governor and other local officials received a different set of military briefings the following day.

Public Lands Secretary Pete A. Tenorio, who was also at the briefings, said yesterday that CPA owns the lands that the military plans to lease.

Tenorio, a member of the Marianas Political Status Commission that negotiated the Covenant that established the relationship between the Northern Marianas and the United States, also said the United States has the right under the Covenant to lease lands, and that negotiation to lease lands applies without 902 talks.

Still, some officials are wary about the impact of leasing acres of lands to the U.S. military outside of Tinian.

Pagan in the Northern Islands is also being eyed for the U.S. military’s live-fire training areas, in addition to Farallon de Mendinilla.

The CNMI, however, is weighing its options. On one hand, it supports the U.S. military’s moves to strengthen its readiness capabilities but at the same time, it does not want significant socio-economic impacts.

Palacios and Deleon Guerrero said that based on the briefings they received, the U.S. Air Force plans to build a fuel tank, maintenance hangar, additional parking areas for tankers, and a munitions storage area, among other things.

Both reiterated that investing in the construction of these facilities would benefit Tinian more.

Saipan is the "preferred Alternative 1" for a divert or contingency airfield for the U.S. Air Force in the western Pacific in the event that access to Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base is limited or denied.

The divert airfield final EIS is scheduled for release sometime August 2013 and the Record of Decision will follow 30 days after. More information on the divert EIS is available at www.pacafdivertmarianaseis.com.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) earlier said the Department of the Air Force Office of Legislative Liaison stated that although there are two phases for the exercise/divert facility, the phases cannot be separated between two different locations.

Phase 1 represents the minimum funding needed to develop an airport in the CNMI as an exercise/divert location.

Phase 2 is for the improvements to that airport, if additional funding becomes available.

Sablan also said H.R. 1960 or the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 that the U.S. House passed on June 14 authorizes funding for all three Air Force construction projects on Saipan as requested in President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget.

But the NDAA requires that the U.S. Air Force acquire the necessary land where these projects will be built prior to the release of any funds, Sablan said.

A 110-page "Draft Environmental Impact Assessment for Proposed Divert Activities and Exercises, Guam and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands" listed Saipan as "preferred alternative 1" and Tinian as "preferred Alternative 2" in June 2012.

The Air Force considered four locations: Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.

An evaluation of the four possible site alternatives identified Saipan and Tinian as meeting or having the ability to meet most of the five selection standards.

Rota and Guam were dropped because they do not meet the selection standard for "storm radius."

Saipan has access to fuel vessels, unlike Tinian.

Both Saipan and Tinian have limited capability to meet the selection standard of "adequate land and existing infrastructure with expansion potential to satisfy proposed action requirements."

The Federal Aviation Administration has also raised concerns about the impacts on the CNMI of using Saipan or Tinian as an alternate airfield for the Air Force.

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