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.