Battle rages over the Guam Northwest Field firing range project
JRM Commander Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield testifies as protesters in the balcony wave signs
Both sides went into an October legislative roundtable on the military buildup well armed, but with utterly different weapons.
Joint Region Marianas Commander Shoshana Chatfield, other representatives of the Navy and the Marines and a platoon or so of subject matter experts, were armed with PowerPoint presentations reflecting a decade of research and documenting compliance with applicable Federal laws and promises made to Guam.
The opposition, clearly dissatisfied by the due diligence of the military, wielded raw emotion and invoked what they see as decades of injustice due to military landtakings dating to World War II and extending into the present, with broken promises of the return of lands that never came to pass. Many in this group are descendants of those who once held land at Ritidian which instead of being returned as surplus, was passed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a nature preserve. Others made clear their opposition to any military presence at all. Their statements were followed by applause as onlooking protesters waved signs in the balcony and in the chamber below.
Trajectory: Ritidian from Northwest Field and a chart showing path of rounds fired from the ranges. (Joint Region Marianas)
The hearing ran a marathon six and a half hours and at best provided a chance for the protesters to ventilate, since the takeaway for journalists on hand was a statement by Navy Captain Dan Turner that construction of the $78.2 million range project would begin February 2018.
Years of protest and demonstrations against the American presence on Okinawa led to the decision to move the Marines to Guam. But the original announcement of the plan set off a lot of alarm bells on Guam, where military landtakings have been a festering sore for decades.
Plans as of 2010 were to bring 8,600 Marines and 9,000 family members to Guam, amounting to a population increase of 79,000 over four years. Another 688 to 1,000 acres of land outside of military control would have been required for the plans as they stood at that stage. The military now says the lesson learned was that the population increase was “too much too fast” and that planners should figure out how to stay on existing federal land. Protest against a proposed firing
Captain Dan Turner
range sited at culturally rich Pagat and a 13,000 signature petition opposing takeover of the popular Guam International Raceway property bolstered the decision to retreat.
The 2015 Final environmental impact statement reflects 5,000 Marines and 1,300 family members, amounting to a 10,000 peak population increase over 13 years. There would be no additional land acquisition, no need for the raceway land and the planned firing ranges would be on the old Northwest Field plateau 600 feet above the Ritidian area. Archaeologists, biologists and a variety of other experts have since besieged Northwest Field above and Ritidian below, documenting archaeological sites, preserving artifacts and attempting to right wrongs done to the environment by feral deer, pigs, carabao and brown tree snakes. Millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, conservation grants and ongoing restoration of the damage to the area were cited.
Marine Major Timothy Patrick surveys undergrowth stripped by feral animals at Northwest Field
The firing range site change to Northwest Field and all the other modifications over ten years haven’t made the public controversy go away. And other factors have come into play. Governor Eddie Baza Calvo has announced his opposition to the buildup, given Washington’s refusal to date to lift what amounts to an effective ban on bringing in H2B workers to build both military and civilian projects and giving a serious blow to the Guam economy. Litigation involving the CNMI portion of the buildup also threatens to stall the Guam construction.
After years of public input and attempts to keep the buildup on course, the military has its mission and Admiral Chatfield, a pilot herself, says that the live fire training is essential, that simulation simply won’t prepare Marines for combat. “I told you before, every Marine is a rifleman and those Marines are our 911 force. The first responders for our U.S. military must be ready. They must have the greatest chance to win the war as a group, but also to survive the war as an individual.”
The spirit of the protesters was more in the line of what’s known on the U.S. mainland as NIMBY, ‘not in my backyard.’
Callen Perez said, “I think it’s fair to say the DoD would never consider constructing a firing range around Mt. Rushmore or within Yosemite National Park or any other similar area.” Perez questioned how the military could claim it’s staying within its footprint while restricting access to portions of Ritidian for 39 weeks a year for fear of stray rounds from above.
Clearly, the protests and subsequent media coverage have left some bruises on the military. Said Admiral Chatfield when challenged on this, “I’ll give you two examples. One, it was stated the depleted uranium rounds would fall into the ocean from the live fire training range and that is not true. We are restricted from that use. Second, it was said we are purchasing and acquiring land for the purpose of constructing the ranges and that is not true.”
Old wounds were also reopened at the roundtable. Longtime activist Joe Garrido sparred with businessman and Chamber of Commerce figure James L. Adkins, blaming the Chamber for influencing the military decision to bring the buildup to Guam, saying the island is too small to accommodate a firing range anywhere. Adkins arrived late in the hearing to defend the Chamber’s efforts to save hundreds of island jobs from a Navy pullout.
Catherine Flores McCollum, Admiral Chatfield
In a fiery tirade, former Ancestral Lands Commission member Catherine Flores McCollum demanded, “Return the lands and let the military buy them at fair market value. Where is the compensation to families that can’t access the properties for at least 39 weeks a year? How would you like it if it were done in your place? Take off the damned uniform and tell me. Tell me how you would like it if it were your land.”
After McCollum’s angry remarks, onlookers in the balcony began singing Fanohge Chamoru, generically known as the Guam hymn, prompting the entire audience, uniformed and otherwise to stand.
As the roundtable concluded to the apparent satisfaction of few, audience member Jeremy Cepeda, noted despite the opposition expressed, most of those protesting have family members who served in the military. “We hope that you will go back to your leaders and tell them what we are telling you tonight,” he said.