OCEANS:

Marianas says U.S. has failed to fulfill monument promises

More than a year after President George W. Bush created a vast marine national monument near the Northern Marianas Islands, the federal government has yet to make good on promised investments in the islands.

Bush created three marine monuments near U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean just weeks before he left the White House, part of a bid for a positive environmental legacy. The largest marine reserve, the Marianas Trench National Monument, encompasses nearly 61 million acres of submerged areas and waters and is the world's third-largest ocean reserve.

The designation was hailed in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The islands' leaders said the reserve would bring international attention and federal investment, but they say they have been left empty-handed. The monument has no advisory council, no management plan and no plans for a visitor center or science education outreach.

"The United States government made promises to a people, and now it looks like those promises are not going to be kept," Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (I), the commonwealth's delegate to Congress, said at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing last week.

One challenge for the Marianas Trench Monument stems from Bush placing it under the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. The monument has to compete with hundreds of other refuges for funding for a visitors center. And its budget is lumped with 27 national wildlife refuges, monuments and memorials in Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific. Funding for the complex actually was cut by more than 22 percent in 2010, even though the protected area greatly expanded. The complex received just over $1 million in 2010.

Another complication: the Marianas Islands are halfway around the globe from the United States, closer to Japan than California.

The monument there includes three separate units: the trench, areas around 21 underwater volcanoes, and the land and water around three uninhabited islands. The trench and volcano units protect only the submerged sea floor, not the ocean and marine life.

The islands have a unique geology that marine advocates liken to an underwater Yellowstone and Grand Canyon combined. The Marianas Trench is the deepest spot on the sea floor -- so deep that the world's tallest mountain, Mount Everest, could be placed inside it and still be covered by more than 7,000 feet of water.

The remote area is mysterious. There has been more exploration on Mars than in the Marianas Trench. There have been just three expeditions down the trench: one 50 years ago and two conducted by robots in the past 10 years.

Marianas citizens who supported the monument expected it to bring environmental, economic and social benefits and gain worldwide recognition for their islands, said Angelo O'Connor Villagomez, director of Friends of the Monument that advocated for the designation. But so far, he said, there has been only recognition.

"That part is exciting, that people are getting interested," Villagomez said. "We're just waiting for the federal government to catch up."

Friends of the Monument have asked Congress to provide money to build a visitor center, expand the monument and give greater protection to marine life. They also want the government to put the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in charge of the monument as part of NOAA's marine sanctuary system, taking it away from Interior.

For its part, Interior says it is proceeding with administration of the monument and balancing it with many other demands at the agency.

Bush's proclamation required the creation of an advisory board for the monument within three months. But the Obama administration has not yet formed the panel. Interior is planning to complete the roster for the advisory board soon, said Eileen Sobeck, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.

Sobeck said the Fish and Wildlife Service will also begin to move forward with a management plan this year.

'Precious dollars'

A huge hurdle figures to be the visitor center, which is of huge importance to the commonwealth.

Commonwealth leaders had envisioned a new half-museum, half-aquarium visitor center that would rebrand the islands as a tourist destination. That would be an expensive proposition.

On average, visitor centers for parks and refuges cost about $7 million to build and $55,000 a year to operate, Sobeck said. A center in the Marianas, she said, may cost more because of its distance from the United States.

To get federal cash for that project, the commonwealth must compete with the Fish and Wildlife Service's 551 wildlife refuges; just under 10 percent of them have visitor center.

"We have a process for considering how we are going to use our precious dollars for visitors' centers," Sobeck said. "We have a process with appropriate criteria -- we will make sure this one is in the mix, but we can't make any promises."

The islands may also have to compete with neighboring Guam for those dollars.

Guam, which also borders the monument, has made a bid for a greater stake in management and its own visitor center. In Guam's favor is that its representative on Capitol Hill, Del. Madeleine Bordallo, chairs the Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee, which held the hearing on the monument Thursday.

Bordallo has introduced a bill, H.R. 4493, which would give Guam a greater role in managing the monument and expanding an existing visitor center for the islands' national wildlife refuge.

The Northern Marianas' delegate, Sablan, said at last week's hearing that his commonwealth is not opposed to Guam's participation in management and wouldn't necessarily oppose a visitors center for Guam, as long as the commonwealth got one first. Sablan has a bill of his own, H.R. 3511, which calls for a visitor center in the commonwealth. It has 37 co-sponsors.

"We feel a strong sense of ownership because our islands are the only islands inside the monument," Sablan said.

But even if Congress approves one or both of the authorization bills, the islands would need congressional appropriators to open the federal purse. Bordallo said she was advised there would likely be no funding for the project in the near future.

"People think that once a bill is passed, tomorrow it is realized. But that is not the way it works in Congress," Bordallo said. "The funding is going to be essential in the realization of this. ... Hopefully, someday we will see it."

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