Many people on Guam face a complicated set of issues about the continuing U.S. military presence on the island, which are neatly crystallized by vocal and growing opposition to the planned firing range at the former Northwest Field adjacent to Andersen Air Force Base.
The range is far past the proposal stage, following years of extensive federal process in preparation for the eventual arrival of thousands of U.S. Marines from Okinawa. An earlier plan to site the range at Pagat-Mangilao, Guam was rejected due to public objections.
Most recently, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Pacific awarded a $78 million firm-fixed-price contract to Guam-based Black Construction Corporation to design and construct the live-fire training range complex.
From the military point of view, all the hoops have been jumped through, with provisions for environmental and cultural protections put in place in response to extensive public input.
For the activist members of the Prutehi Litekyan-Save Ritidian group and their supporters though , the real issue is continued military control of approximately one third of the island’s land, regardless of whatever compromises to public interest and sentiment may be negotiated.
Stirred by the vision of bulldozers rolling on the project and 50 caliber bullets skimming over historically significant properties below the Ritidian cliffline—from which the Guam public will largely be excluded—the group has taken its protests to the Governor’s office at Adelup and to the social media.
During one of a number of demonstrations at the seat of local government, sign carrying demonstrators surged through the governor’s office complex at Adelup, singing the Guam Hymn and chanting “Save Ritidian.”
The protestors did not find Governor Calvo in the office, but Spokesperson Oyaol Ngiraikl disputed their claim that the governor had betrayed them by letting the range portion of the Guam military buildup go forward. Said Ngiraikl, "He can't exactly stop the military buildup. He's already pulled back his support of it. And then we had the North Korea incident. That took up a lot of his time, believe me, it did. And I'm not saying you guys are not a priority.”
A protestor responded, "We need to put this on pause until we can look at it and address it. Not let the bulldozers go and we'll meet later."
A later legislative briefing on the Ritidian issue hardly satisfied the protestors as various local government officials made it clear that they had few options to halt the project at this late date. Robert Crisostomo, the governor’s military buildup adviser, opened the briefing with a disclaimer that the panel of government of Guam employees might not answer all questions. And when Senator Telena Nelson asked why the government hadn’t returned the land to the original owners in the 1990s, Crisostomo quickly replied, “Unfortunately I don’t know. That’s a question you’ll have to [ask the head of] the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service].”
Crisostomo further explained that the government representatives merely serve as the governor’s “eyes and ears” on the Ritidian construction. “We must plug in with our federal counterparts because we have no jurisdiction inside the wire,” he said.
His straightforwardness about the situation stimulated an atmosphere of frustration and powerlessness among the protestors packing the session.
The senators present expressed skepticism about whether the local government entities had sufficiently represented the island’s interests in regard to the firing range project. Some contended the Ritidian site was chosen for its convenience to the marines rather than for the benefit of the island.
Military officials were not on hand for the briefing, and have generally responded to the issues now being raised through news releases. A meeting between the Save Ritidian group and Joint Region Marianas Commander Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield did not end well, according to a news release from the group. "When Prutehi Litekyan pressed that what it really wanted answers to why [the Department of Defense] chose the site that causes the most harm, the meeting was abruptly ended and the members were escorted to the parking lot by the Rear Admiral herself."
This is not to say that the Ritidian protests are a direct expression of opposition to the Guam military buildup, which clearly enjoys majority support on the island. For decades, former Ritidian landowners have protested the military taking and retention of their properties for little or no compensation.
Admiral Shoshana Chatfield
As was pointed out by Senator Nelson, when the property in question was declared surplus in the 1990s, instead of returning it to its former owners, the military chose to turn it over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife refuge.
The briefing made it clear that many of the firing range opponents are put in the awkward position of appearing to oppose both the military buildup, which is widely popular and the cause of wildlife preservation.
“We are very much in favor of the conservation of wildlife and endangered species but the way that it was done was plain wrong,” said Maria Hernandez, granddaughter of some of the original landowners, Benigno and Dolores Flores.
That sentiment was echoed by 89-year-old original landowner Alfonso Matanane Pangelinan, a supporter of the buildup, who maintains that the firing range should be sited on property truly owned by the federal government.
Prutehi Litekyan-Save Ritidian’s widely circulated online petition provides no opening for negotiation on the issue:
“We, the Guam-based group Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian, are a direct action group dedicated to the protection of natural and cultural resources in all sites identified for DOD live-fire firing training on Guam. We oppose the establishment of any military firing range and align our efforts with other regional movements working to prevent environmental degradation and destruction on sacred and native lands. Our work promotes the continued pursuit for return of ancestral lands.
We protest the signing of the Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan that would allow the construction of the Live-Fire Training Range Complex at Andersen Air Force Base. We vehemently protest the detrimental impacts that the firing range would have on the ancient village of Litekyan (Ritidian), Urunao, and Jinapsan and all of the species, endangered or otherwise, within the Guam Wildlife Refuge.”
Speaking of the range contract award, Officer in Charge of Marine Corps Activity Guam, Colonel Brent Bien said, “We are committed to Guam, and our forward presence here will play an essential role in strengthening the military’s ability to maintain regional security and protect the nation’s interests in the Pacific.” Colonel Bien cited a July 2017 biological opinion for the Marine Corps relocation written in consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in which the Department of the Navy committed to restoration efforts focusing on recovery habitats for threatened and endangered species.
“This deliberate focus on protection and restoration is consistent with our commitment to the One Guam and Green Guam pillars set forth by the Secretary of the Navy in the Marine Corps relocation to Guam,” said NAVFAC Marianas Commanding Officer Captain Stephanie Jones.
Jones said the Navy will construct fencing in 307 acres of Northwest Field designed to prevent the passage of wild pigs and deer thereby ensuring protection of native plant species. Additionally, invasive plant species will be removed and native species planted in their place. Long-term monitoring will take place when restoration is complete.
Regardless of expressed military concern with threatened and endangered species, the Ritidian area below the cliffline will be declared a ‘surface danger zone,’ closed to the public for a large part of the year due to bullets missing their targets and passing over the area.
A representative of Guam fishermen at the briefing also said the zone would close a large portion of existing fishing grounds in the area.
What lies below the cliff and hidden beneath dense jungle foliage is centuries of Guam’s history, just being rediscovered and explored by a range of specialists.
Guam State Historic Preservation Officer Lynda Bordallo Aguon told the briefing that 34 historic sites will be directly impacted and another 70 indirectly impacted within that zone.
Aguon said an appeal for re-evaluation of the firing range siting would be directed to President Trump, wending its way through an extensive bureaucratic process by way of the U.S. Interior Department, along the lines of similar protests by native Hawaiians and other indigenous groups. She held out hope that immediate action on the contract, such as bulldozing the limestone forest, could be at least be temporarily halted.
American Samoa Delegate Radewagen and Congressman Joe Wilson
Meanwhile, a fellow islander urged the protesters to take another look at the military plans. American Samoa Republican Delegate Amata Coleman Radewagen, part of a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation, weighed in on the Ritidian issue after a tour of the area: “The people who are protesting [the range] need to work together because I’m really very impressed with what the military has set up. And I think that some of these assumptions that these people have made may not be totally accurate and I do think that once they find out what the Marines have in mind and that every realistic step has been taken to take the cultural and other things into consideration… I think it’s just a real plus and it’s necessary for the people of Guam to understand the accurate parts of this plan.”
A Ritidian Tour
Even for experienced visitors to Ritidian, the potholed, cratered road to the wildlife refuge seems longer each time, prompting some sympathy for the military security personnel who patrol the Andersen AFB perimeter fence night and day.
The first relief is a scenic overlook, which provides a spectacular view of the cliffline as well as the bright green limestone forest below. Far in the background to the north is the island of Rota.
Following the steep, curving road toward the ocean, a variety of present-day activities are revealed. A few intrepid tourists are on the broad sandy beaches or visiting the refuge nature center. Along the narrow trails carved through the jungle one sees Fish and Wildlife biologists and other specialists pursuing research.
Above all, there is evidence of centuries of human activity ranging from pre-historic occupation to Navy activities of recent decades. Stripping away the jungle growth reveals traces of what must have been an extensive urban settlement that eventually yielded to the arrival of the Spaniards.
The moss encrusted latte stone shafts and caps that provided the foundation for houses and public buildings are strewn everywhere, along with fragments of pre-historic Marianas redware pottery. Latter day visitors have decorated these with bead necklaces and other modern artifacts as a sort of communication with long gone ancestors.
Archaeologists have identified a wealth of indicators of Ritidian’s past. Human remains have been excavated at the village sites. There is what is believed to be a stone lined Spanish well and caves that likely provided shelter and water. There are burn pits, where local limestone was rendered into cement and other products.
Along the beach are nests where endangered green sea turtles lay their eggs, as crabs and other creatures scuttle by. Out in the water, the U.S. Navy has left its own artifacts, the giant concrete bases that once anchored the antennas for a long abandoned underwater listening station.
On the way out of Ritidian, departing visitors will see a somewhat neglected memorial to the 315th Bomb Wing, once based at Northwest Field. The bombers returned to Guam after a successful 1945 mission against Japanese targets, to learn that President Harry Truman had just announced the official end of World War II.