Restricted Access To Guam Refuge Included In Defense Bill

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U.S. plans live-fire training near Ritidian Wildlife Refuge

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Dec. 8, 2014) – Possible restrictions on public access to a portion of the Guam National Wildlife Refuge at Ritidian, a popular spot for beach picnics and nature and cultural tours, are part of the defense spending bill that passed the House of Representatives last week.

The Senate is expected to vote on the Fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization before the end of the month.

The military's plan to build a live-fire training range complex to support the training needs of Marines who are moving to Guam touched off a public debate on Guam several months ago, in part because of the proposed use of part of Ritidian as a "surface danger zone," or safety buffer zone, for the firing range.

The defense spending bill states, in part: "In order to accommodate the operation of a live-fire training range complex on Andersen Air Force Base-Northwest Field and the management of the adjacent Ritidian Unit of the Guam National Wildlife Refuge, the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Interior, notwithstanding the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, may enter into an agreement providing for the establishment and operation of a surface danger zone which overlays the Ritidian Unit."

The legislation also would allow, according to the bill, "openings and closures of the surface danger zone to the public as may be necessary."

[PIR editor’s note: Pacific Daily News reported that ‘Guam's longstanding claims for compensation for Guamanians who suffered at the hands of Japanese forces during World War II didn't make it as a piggyback provision in the latest version of the defense spending bill that passed the House of Representatives Friday.’]

The military has assured that there won't be any firing of weapons within the refuge -- the safety buffer zone at Ritidian will keep the public at a safe distance from the adjacent firing range. The firing range will be within the fence at Andersen Air Force Base.

Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo said last week the training range complex in the defense spending bill "is critical to move the buildup forward."

"The provision would allow the (Defense Department) and Fish and Wildlife Service to continue discussions on how to mitigate any impacts the (surface danger zone) may cause if the Marine Corps firing range is placed on Andersen Air Force Base," Bordallo said.

"Having a live-fire training range on Guam is critical to the Marine realignment and the overall readiness of military forces on Guam, including our Guam National Guard," Bordallo stated.

"(The Defense Department) has assured Congress and local leaders that it would minimize any negative impact the surface danger zone may cause on our community and environment," Bordallo stated.

Bordallo added that the Defense Department insisted, in talks with Senate and House lawmakers who negotiated the compromise defense spending bill, that the provision related to Ritidian is necessary to overcome legal impediments that have kept Pentagon and Fish and Wildlife Service representatives from holding discussions about Ritidian, according to Bordallo.

The legislation further states that Defense Department personnel will perform conservation activities at Ritidian, which is a departure from the current system, in which Fish and Wildlife are performing such duties as habitat maintenance, and combating brown tree snake eradication program.

Pentagon insistence

In May, following concerns voiced by Speaker Judith Won Pat and others who were opposed to restrictions on public access to Ritidian, Bordallo temporarily withdrew her proposal authorizing the use of Ritidian as a safety zone for the firing range complex.

The Ritidian language was restored in the negotiated defense spending bill at the insistence of the Pentagon, Bordallo stated.

In response to local residents' concerns about public access to Ritidian, the Defense Department's Joint Guam Program Office assured in May that more than 100 acres of the National Wildlife Refuge at Ritidian Point would still be open for tourists and island residents if the proposed safety buffer zone for a Marine firing range on nearby Northwest Field becomes final, according to the Guam buildup website.

The military plans to build a Marine base and live-fire training range complex on Guam to accommodate about 5,000 Marines and 1,300 dependents who are being relocated from a U.S. military base in Okinawa.

The compromise defense spending bill would give the buildup plans a boost forward with its proposal to unfreeze $1 billion that Japan has contributed so far for the Marines' relocation. Japan has committed to paying a total of $3 billion of the $8.7 billion estimated cost to relocate the Marines to Guam.

The military prefers to build the Marine base on existing military land near Andersen Air Force Base, and to host the Marines' families in houses that will either be built or renovated on Andersen Air Force Base to reduce the impact on the host community, Pacific Daily News files show.

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