A call for moratorium

June 30, 2019

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 The U.S. Navy’s live-fire training complex has always been a sore spot. An earlier plan to site the firing range in the ancient village of Pagat received an overwhelming thumbs down, prompting the Navy to relocate the project site to its property in Northwest Field adjacent to Ritidian.

 

One of the most culturally rich spots on island, Ritidian is a wildlife preserve unit of the Guam National Wildlife Refuge, covering 371 acres of coral reefs and 832 acres of terrestrial habitats including limestone forests. Marked as an archeological mine, Ritidian contains an abundance of cultural resources, including latte sets, water wells, limestone mortars, cave drawings, pottery and shell artifacts. 

 

Not here either! Activists cry in protest. An online petition demanding a complete halt on the firing range construction in the Ritidian area has been rolling. But the project is far past the proposal stage. The Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific has awarded a $78 million contract to Black Construction Corp. to design and construct the training complex, which is component of the Navy’s $10 billion military buildup program on Guam.

 

From the military point of view, all the hoops have been jumped through, with provisions for environmental and cultural protections in compliance with the 2009 Programmatic Agreement.

The military buildup has been an emotionally charged undertaking since the onset of planning for the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Threats to Guam’s historic treasures add to the anxiety. It poses a dilemma to an island that relies on military spending to keep its economy afloat.

 

In January, however, construction work in a portion of project site partially stopped following the discovery of artifacts, consisting of prehistoric rock tools and pottery fragments as well as items from the late 1800s.

 

The most recent discovery at Northwest Field consisted of latte-period ceramic scatter and lusong, or mortar and pestle. The Marine Corp Activity Guam reported that three areas are “probable sites or extensions of one larger site, pending confirmation by additional investigations.” The MCAG also noted that “stump pulling activities continue to expose archaeological materials as they move north.”

 

Members of the Save Ritidian Movement hold a rally in Adelup demanding a stop to the construction of a firing range in Northwest Field in this September 2017 file photo. Photo by Bruce Lloyd

 

 

“So that is the concern, that clearing continues. They are clearing the data, clearing the artifacts, clearing the lusong, and the latte,” said Sen. Therese Terlaje, the first senator to call for a pause on the project.

 

The four new inadvertent discoveries are in addition to the 14 known historic properties that have already been removed and the 80 other historic properties and the adjacent village will be impacted by the project, Terlaje said. “They are clearing areas and not preserving in-site. The intent of the Programmatic Agreement was that these sites would be avoided.”

 

The latest archeological discoveries have prompted then State Historic Preservation Officer Lynda Aguon to request an extension from the Department of Defense to review the latest “inadvertent” discovery. (Aguon, however, has since been dismissed from her job for personnel reasons).  

 

“It is unclear if the DOD is operating under the timeline of 48 hours for inadvertent discoveries to be collected and cleared or if the extension request was granted or if you have called for a pause as requested in my previous June 12, 2019 letter,” Terlaje said.

 

Terlaje’s colleagues in the legislature have now jumped on board for her call to put a moratorium on the project. On June 21, 13 senators adopted a resolution urging Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero to call for a pause to all clearing, pre-construction, data recovery and construction activities related to the training range at Northwest Field.

 

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The pause, according to the resolution, is needed “in order to ensure the protection of the environment and historic and cultural resources of the northern coastline of Guam

 

“Long before we took office and prior to any policy governing this land, the ancient CHamoru settled the island of Guam. Our ancestors farmed the land, fished the sea, established impressive villages throughout the island and lived in close-knit communities,” Vice Speaker Telena Nelson said in a press release.  “This is our legacy and, as the leaders of our island today, we have inherited the responsibility of protecting and preserving our history. We want to ensure the Department of Defense and Navy stand with us in this effort as we continue to work together.”

 

In endorsing the resolution, Speaker Tina Muna Barnes also brought up the serianthes nelsonii, a rare tree found at Andersen Air Force Base in Yigo, standing along the fence line of the base.

 

“This mother-tree is also on a lower elevation – further protecting it from bullets being fired at the range. With a forest as a buffer - looking at a map, it is safe to say that it would be close to impossible for a bullet from the firing range to reach the tree,” Barnes said.

 

 The Navy, however, informed the speaker that efforts to revive the tree are already being taken care, with 41 saplings around Andersen.

 

Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said she supports a construction pause only around the Serianthes nelsonii tree and on the sites of artifacts discovery at Northwest Field. She is not keen in calling for a pause across the entire project site for the live-fire training range complex. 

 

Military construction, of course, is not confined to the northern part of Guam. And on a small island rich in ancient past, coming across a historical find isn't a one-in-a-million chance.

 

In a Programmatic Agreement memo in March, the Department of Defense reported plans to dig and drill around an archeologically rich area within the Navy property in Santa Rita, which has been marked as the site of military buildup-related projects. “This effort may also require unexploded ordnance/munitions and explosives of concern removal,” the memo states.

 

Existing research and reference materials indicate the presence of several historic properties in the vicinity of the project area. NAVFAC, for example, identified West Bonya, a latte period site that is home to seven latte sets, an associated retaining wall, several basalt mortars or lusong and a surface artifact scatter. “Radio carbon samples collected from subsurface excavations reveal a date range of AD 1285 – AD 1435,” NAVFAC said.

 

While the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, NAVFAC claimed it is not within affected area.

 

Rear Adm. Shoshana Chatfield, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, said the Navy is committed to improving the understanding of its compliance obligations. “The Navy takes its role to protect and preserve our natural and cultural resources very seriously,” Chatfield said in response to Guam senators’ call for a suspension of construction work at Northwest Field. “It is my strongest desire to maintain a productive dialogue about the planning and accomplishments that inform and ensure our defense of the island and nation.”

 

The military buildup has been an emotionally charged undertaking since the onset of planning for the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Threats to Guam’s historic treasures add to the anxiety. It poses a dilemma to an island that relies on military spending to keep its economy afloat.

 

The 2009 Programmatic Agreement expires in December. The agreement’s renewal expires guaranteed to become another uphill battle for both the Navy and the Guam community.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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