• By Johanna Salinas

Amid recurring tensions, Guam Buildup Office struggles to weigh community concerns and military need

Historic Preservation official says civilian community shut out of PA workshop

While the U.S. Navy is busy building defense infrastructure on Guam, local activists are constantly on watch, making attempts to block further expansion of military footprint on island. Standing by on the other end is the seemingly quiet Guam Buildup Office, tasked with the complex job to strike a balance between the community’s concerns and the military’s requirements.

“When you’re looking at any growth community in terms of military growth there will always be challenges,” said Vera Topasna, executive director of the GBO. “Some of things our office is involved in is the environmental and historical preservation and stewardship by the military. Those are things we address with our local (State Historic Preservation Officer) and his office.”

Other aspects of the military buildup that need attention involve jobs and workforce availability, population growth, infrastructure capacity and growth sustainability. “There are many challenges and problems, but we work with the military to address them. We have our priorities and the governor has stated them. We work through them as they come,” Topasna said.

While Guam Buildup Office tries to be transparent to the people, the Navy continues to expand the restricted area in Ritidian with public hearings.

“Whether it’s the environment or historic preservation, there are certain conditions where they would have to call a public hearing,” Topasna said. “Whether they go out via notices in the paper, the military is required to announce those public hearings. We also have informational hearings at the Legislature Hall on certain topics to include historical preservation and environmental protection. Those senators who have oversight call for public hearings. Those are announced to the public. We definitely encourage transparency at all levels.”

Another issue of concern is the lack of local representation at the annual Programmatic Agreement 2011 workshop held Aug. 6. Because of social distancing, only 20 people were invited to the workshop at Guam Museum. “The PA 2011, that announcement went out to all the stakeholders, all the signatories who signed on the PA as well as some of our non-profit organizations that are involved in environmental and historic preservation stewardship,” said Topasna. “In an effort to be transparent, they opened it up and sent the email blast even to the legislature. We had the senators invited, even though they’re not signatories.”

Dave Lotz, a member of the Guam Review Board for Historic Preservation, however, debunked such transparency claims.

“This was never publicly announced by the Navy and then they said the room they’d be in could only seat 20 people. I understand they wanted to do some spacing because of the Covid requirements, but why didn’t they choose a venue that could better handle the situation,” Lotz said. “I think they used Covid as an excuse to significantly restrict the representation.”

Lotz said he only found out about the workshop through the media. “It was only in the morning of the PA I was able to get a link to participate. To me, it’s an inherent obstacle if people can access it through the computer,” he said.

With technology being the mode for meeting during the pandemic, Lotz believes hosting the online can be limiting. “When there are projects within the PA, they open them for public comments through a webpage,” he said. “When they do that, they post it and say give us comments by a certain date, but it’s really not a meaningful engagement. They can ignore comments and I assume they have.”

The historian feels that the military is not transparent with the public, since only certain people are notified of the PA meeting. “My sense of watching this unfold in the PA is that the Navy has an obligation to have the historic preservation efforts under the National Historic Preservation law of public input. Yet, they’ve worked it so they could do it at arm's length,” said Lotz.

“As far as these PA meetings, they’ve only allowed them to be open to entities and government agencies that have signed on to the PA. They don’t invite entities, individuals, or government agencies that didn’t sign it. That's a disservice because we’re dealing with the cultural resources that belong to the people of Guam and they don’t belong to the military.”

Topasna said “the workshop went very well.” Recurring concerns such as those involving the cultural repository and artifacts discovered at projects sites were discussed, she said. “Did it solve all issues and concerns? Certainly not. But it was an opportunity to dialog and for us, the Office of the Governor and the Military Buildup Office to respond to those questions.”

With Covid-19, putting a disruption to tourism, Guam may have to rely on military spending to boost the economy.

The Guam-military affair is a symbiotic relationship. When the USS Theodore Roosevelt was hit by the worst Covid-19 outbreak, Guam hosted the infected sailors at Tumon hotels, which served as quarantine facilities. With the coronavirus surging on Guam and threatening the island’s fragile health care system, local leaders are depending on the Navy to come to the rescue when needed.

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“Guam plays a critical role in terms of national defense,” Topasna said. “Military is also an important part of our economy, like a third leg of tourism with military spending. Right now, the governor recognizes that the military is critical to the economy. We have our challenges with the buildup and the governor has her concerns, but we’re addressing that. As we speak, she has several meetings with high level military officials to address that are directly related our needs.”

On Aug. 29, the establishment of a restricted area designated for military firing tests on Guam officially took effect, resulting in a ban on fishing and other public activities in the waters adjacent to Finegayan, the site of the Navy’s small arms range. The danger zone is located entirely within the Pacific Ocean, comprising 892 acres and extending 2.36 miles into the ocean from the high tide line. The U.S. Corps of Engineer declined request for a public hearing on this policy.

Lotz said the local community feels defeated when the military makes arbitrary decisions. “When the PA was signed off, it led to the sanctioned destruction of Magua village. It’s there hidden in the language,” he said. “The public access program is basically a farce.”

Lotz questioned the logistics of the repository for Magua artifacts. “This is supposes to be finished next year. Does Guam have the funding to run that?” Lotz asked.

“I don’t know if it’s in the agency’s budget for either UOG or Guam Museum to manage this facility. Here we’re taking on a new obligation that will exist forever at a time when GovGuam has to adjust expected revenue significantly down. At the same time, we’ve had reduction in government services. Here we’re taking on an obligation where we’d have to extend money, while we see other things reduced.”

The Navy has committed $14 million for the construction of the repository facility. “They can afford to build it, but can we afford to maintain it? It’ll cost more than $14 million to maintain,” Lotz said.

Since the Programmatic Agreement was signed in 2011, the collateral issues date back to previous administrations, Lotz said. “One prime example I can illustrate that we need to be assertive and know how to negotiate was during Felix Camacho’s administration when the buildup first became known. Camacho’s administration offered the Pågat area, which is GovGuam land, to the Marines for their firing range.”

Lotz, a historian feels that past decisions by former governors have sent a weak message to the military. “I’m afraid we’ve gotten ourselves fixed in subservience,” said Lotz. “Why would they just give away Pågat? Why didn’t they demand a sit down with the military and have a serious discussion and negotiate? The military wants something from Guam, what do we want in return.”

Lotz is challenging the incumbent Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, to be more assertive. “We need to know how to seriously negotiate. I haven’t seen that,” he said.

Lotz expressed doubt on what the Guam Buildup Office can do. “I don’t know Vera very well, but I know when it was announced she'd be heading the Buildup Office, they mentioned her background was in the private sector,” Lotz said. “I haven’t seen her previously in any form dealing with the buildup. It tells me they’re bringing in somebody who doesn’t have a wealth of experience with buildup issues.”

Topasna, for her part, said her stint at the office has been a learning experience. “I see the military and become more understanding of military dynamics--about how Guam is important to the region. The other thing too that makes my job evermore exciting is I’m learning more and more about our history and our cultural preservation,” said the director.

“Also learning about where we came from, because of things we found on construction sites. There’s also a lot of history to the military on Guam. I appreciate how dynamic it is, because I see it from a holistic point of view. What’s exciting is I’m able to give the governor both sides and her liaison so she can make informed decisions for the island the people. That’s most important to me, the direction and One Guam in taking care of our people.”

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