‘This Isn’t Your Island’: Why Northern Mariana Islanders Are Facing Down the US Military
Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
In April 2015, in a school cafeteria on the Pacific island of Tinian, a high-school sophomore named Jerica Aldan approached the microphone. Seated to her right were US Navy representatives, who wanted to establish a live-fire range that would encompass the majority of her 40-square-mile home. In front of her, it was standing room only—her friends and neighbors had come out to this public hearing to try and save their community from the US military.
“This isn’t your island,” she told the Navy officials in Chamorro, the indigenous language. “It’s my island.” Switching to English, she compared their plans to crumpling a clean sheet of paper into a ball—no matter how hard one tries to straighten it out, the page will never go back to how it was. “You think we can recover from this? … We can’t,” she said. The crowd erupted into applause.
Just outside of the gate to the school grounds, activists played videos of bombing exercises on their laptops, and students held posters that read, “No bombs!” Earlier that month, the military had published its plan to use Tinian—the second-most populous of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in northwest Micronesia—as well as another entire island, Pågan, in order to practice launching mortars, firing rockets, and dropping bombs. The proposal is just one part of a larger reshuffling of US armed forces in the Pacific, and the military’s moves, some of which appear to be illegal, have unearthed tensions between the federal government and its oft-ignored territories.
In the Northern Marianas, people fear that the sounds and smells of aerial bombardment would affect daily life and wreck their tourism-based economy. They know that amphibious-assault trainings would mar their unique coral reefs and limit access to key fishing grounds. They say that artillery, shelling, and mortars would level natural and archaeological sites, destroying the indigenous community’s historic and cultural assets.
“You rent someone your home, and they decide to torch it,” Cinta Kaipat, a local activist, told The Nation.
The military has tried to downplay the destructive aspects of its plan, allegedly going as far as to withhold information from the public. But residents aren’t having it. Even though they’re a small, low-income community facing down the world’s largest military; even though their only elected representative has no voting rights in the House of Representatives; even though most mainland Americans don’t know their islands exist, must less that they’re part of the United States—they’re holding their own in the fight to protect their home.
A Colonial History
For some 4,000 years, the indigenous Chamorro people have inhabited the Mariana archipelago, which runs from Guam up through the Northern Mariana Islands. Today, the island chain is home to a mix of Chamorros, East and Southeast Asians, Americans, Eastern Europeans, and the Refaluwasch people, another Pacific-island group indigenous to the nearby Caroline Islands. Saipan is the island capital of the Northern Marianas, and it hosts 90 percent of the population—around 48,000 people. Tinian, population 3,000, sits just three miles away.
Throughout its history, the Northern Marianas have been passed from one colonial power to another. In the 17th century, Spain formally colonized the archipelago, but after the United States gained Guam and the Philippines as spoils of the Spanish-American War, Spain sold the Northern Marianas to Germany in 1899. After Germany lost World War I, the Treaty of Versailles placed the islands under Japanese rule.
During World War II, the Northern Marianas were the site of numerous bloody battles, including the Battle of Saipan, which killed some 55,000 soldiers and civilians. When the US took over in 1944, it built on Tinian what was the world’s largest airbase, from which it launched raids on the Philippines, Okinawa, and mainland Japan, including the Tokyo fire bombings and the atomic-bomb missions on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the United Nations entrusted Japan’s Micronesian territories to the United States. In the late 1940s and ’50s, the US conducted 67 massive nuclear tests in and around Micronesia’s Marshall Islands, but the Marianas escaped the displacement, cancer, and birth defects, and have lived relatively peacefully alongside the US military.
In 1975, 80 percent of Northern Marianas voters chose to make the islands a US commonwealth. This gave qualified residents US citizenship and put the islands under most US federal law. As part of the agreement, the Department of Defense also promised to build a recuperation base on Tinian, which would have housed hundreds of soldiers and their families, bringing jobs and amenities such as a modern hospital and a cinema.
But decades passed and the recuperation base was never built. Instead, in 2015, the military proposed to bombard the land on which it had once pledged to build.
The Grand Scheme
One of the main catalysts for the Northern Marianas’ current predicament took place 24 years ago and 1,400 miles away. On September 4, 1995, two Marines and a Navy soldier stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl.
It was the final straw for Okinawans, who had for half a century suffered through environmental destruction, dangerous accidents, and increased crime—including sexual assault—as a result of hosting one of the US’s largest foreign-military presences. Widespread protests soon developed into a full-blown anti-US military movement on Okinawa. Something had to be done.
US and Japanese officials began to discuss relocating American troops to other posts in the Pacific. From 2005 to 2009, the two countries signed a series of agreements that called for some 8,000 Marines, their 9,000 family members, an additional 1,700 personnel, and a host of Navy equipment to be relocated to Guam. The Marines would also require extensive training facilities that far surpassed what Guam would be able to support. The relocation was set to cost $10.3 billion—of which Japan would be on the hook for about $6 billion—and the Navy was responsible for executing the plan.
The biggest hurdles for the Navy in implementing the relocation lay in the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Enacted in 1970, NEPA requires federal agencies planning to undertake major construction projects to inform the public of their potential disruptive consequences via environmental-impact statements, or EISs. These massive, heavily researched documents are meant to compel the government to take the environment into account when building infrastructure. They also establish a process through which the public can engage with the federal government. After releasing a draft EIS, officials announce a public-comment period during which individuals can request more information or bring up issues that may have been overlooked in the draft. And, if necessary, activists can use this information to fight proposed projects in the political or legal arenas.
The Navy released its 11,000-page first draft EIS for the Guam relocation plan in 2009, and its 23,000-page follow up in July 2010. It included construction of a Marine garrison, firing ranges, and space to park submarines and aircraft carriers—all on Guam. To help make up for Guam’s lack of space, the document also included construction of small-arms firing ranges on Tinian.
While the relocation EIS sparked massive resistance on Guam, it triggered little activism in the Northern Marianas. Nor did two subsequent EISs that laid the groundwork for what was to come: one that sectioned off about 500,000 square nautical miles of ocean surrounding the Marianas for possible live-fire exercises and weapons training, and another that expanded that area to about 1 million square nautical miles and tripled the amount of bombing permitted on No’os, an uninhabited island already being used as a training range.
By 2015, Northern Mariana islanders were catching on to the threat presented by the military buildup. In 2012, largely due to resident activism and alarms raised by the Environmental Protection Agency, it became clear that the Navy’s original plans would overwhelm Guam’s drinking-water and sewage systems, and so the Navy reduced the number of relocated troops to around 5,000 and shortened the length of their rotations so that their families would not need to come along.
In April of 2015, the Navy released its draft EIS for what it called the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Joint Military Training plan. Northern Mariana residents followed in Guam activists’ footsteps and quickly came to together to decipher the 1,400-page document, which was riddled with scientific studies and military jargon.
“We divided it into chapters, and we were there every night, just poring over the text,” said Florine Hofschneider, a member of the Tinian Women Association. “I think it was designed not for the layman to understand. … I didn’t understand half the things they were saying.”
Despite the opacity of the text, activists noticed that it wasn’t just Tinian that the military planned to use for training. Officials also wanted the entirety of Pågan, about 200 miles north of Tinian, as a live-fire training ground, effectively banning the public from visiting or living on the island. Pågan used to be home to agricultural settlements, until the volcano on its north end erupted in 1981, forcing residents to evacuate. Since then, many Chamorro and Refaluwasch families have been trying to return, as they see the island as a spiritual and ancestral homeland where they can live more traditional lifestyles.
“We deserve to preserve our culture,” said Cinta Kaipat, co-founder of the grassroots PåganWatch. (An uncle of one of the writers of this article is another PåganWatch co-founder.) Kaipat spent much of her childhood on Pågan, where her father was the mayor for several years. Like many Marianas residents, she described the “overwhelming sense of spirituality” she feels when she’s there. If it’s bombed, she said, “we will lose our identity, and we will eventually lose ourselves.”
Residents also learned from the EIS that the military planned much more destructive exercises than it had outlined in 2010. Every year, Tinian and Pågan would be pummeled with nearly 95,000 “high explosive” mortars, rockets, grenades, and artillery rounds, and Pågan would be hit with 525 live bombs, some weighing up to 2,000 pounds. It was a far cry from using a small tract of Tinian for target practice with small-caliber bullets.
As they grappled with the EIS’s revelations, activists looked into the US military’s destructive past on other islands—which made their prognosis seem even worse. In addition to the nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands, they read about Kaho’olawe in Hawai’i, used as target practice by the US military for 50 years. After 25 years of clean-up efforts and a $400-million project to remove unexploded ordnance, a quarter of the island remains unsafe. They also learned about Vieques, off of Puerto Rico, which the US bombed for over 60 years. Today, the cancer rate on Vieques is 27 percent higher than on Puerto Rico proper, while 34 percent of residents recently tested positive for toxic levels of mercury and more than two-thirds for arsenic poisoning.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that Washington, DC, the Department of Defense, or the Navy can just make all these plans,” said Rosemond Santos, co-founder of Guardians of Gåni’ and owner of a local radio station on Saipan. “These are beautiful islands where people live … and they come in and completely destroy it.”
As the potential impacts of the military’s plans became clear, local activist groups combined to form the Alternative Zero Coalition. The coalition launched online petitions, wrote newspaper articles and letters, and used Santos’s radio station to educate the public and encourage them to participate in the upcoming public hearings.
When the hearings started, residents attended en masse. Everyone from the elderly to elementary-school kids spoke up. It’s where Aldan made her crumpled-paper speech.
The Navy wasn’t ready to face a fully engaged community. By activists’ accounts, representatives either dodged their questions or gave vague answers.
“When we ask tough questions, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m only limited to talking about this,’ or, ‘I am not at liberty to discuss that,’” said Santos.
Santos said—and other activists confirmed—that, at a hearing on Tinian, residents pointed out that the military’s amphibious landings would could off access to a popular fishing area. In response, a Navy representative assured the community that the military would “relocate” the fishing ground’s natural resources to another beach.
“We’re standing there listening to this, and it’s like, I know I’m not stupid,” said Santos. “I think they still think we live in grass huts and walk around naked.”
Even local politicians—historically deferential to military demands—joined the resistance. The late governor, Eloy Inos, got the Defense Department to extend the public-comment period by 60 days. He also obtained a $275,000 grant from the Department of the Interior to hire a pair of law firms to advise his government about the EIS’s contents and create educational materials for the public. (The head consultant for one of the firms would call the EIS so “woefully inadequate” that it “precludes intelligent review.”)
By the time the public-comment period was over, residents had submitted nearly 30,000 comments. Taken aback, the Navy retracted its original draft EIS, eventually promising to come back in “late 2018 or early 2019” with a revised one that would “include greater details on the mitigation of risks to the environment, as well as two new alternatives.”
But the Alternative Zero Coalition wasn’t going to wait for another enormous document.
Uncovering the Navy’s Deception
Kimberlyn King-Hinds was born and raised on Tinian, and she spent much of her childhood surrounded by the military. While she described soldiers’ ubiquitous presence on her home island in the 1970s and ’80s as mostly a “non-issue,” she, like Kaipat, likened the most recent plans to a destructive houseguest.
“Why don’t you come into my house, tell me you’re going to take my bedroom, and, ‘By the way, I’m going to blow it up,’” she joked.
King-Hinds grew up to be a lawyer. And in the summer of 2016, she teamed up with David Henkin, an attorney with the legal-nonprofit Earthjustice, to sue the Navy over its plans to turn her home into a firing range.
With their lawsuit, King-Hinds and Henkin are representing several organizations within the Alternative Zero Coalition. At first, they sued the Navy for, among other things, not publicly evaluating alternative locations for the training ranges. But going through the discovery phase of the suit, they realized that the Navy’s alleged malfeasance went much deeper.
Under NEPA, an agency is required to consider every facet of a project—every “connected” action—in a single environmental-impact statement. It’s illegal to split an overarching plan into separate parts with separate EISs. It is also illegal to withhold information from one EIS with the intent to address it in a future EIS. Everything has to be out on the table for the public to review it all at once.
This is not what the Navy did.
When Henkin and Kind-Hinds filed their lawsuit, they assumed that the two EISs against which activists on the whole Mariana archipelago had organized—the 2010 relocation EIS on Guam and the 2015 Joint Military Training EIS on the Northern Marianas—were connected. As Henkin worked through more than 400,000 pages of discovery documents, he confirmed that the Navy had planned all along for Guam to play the role of barracks while the Northern Marianas was to play the role of training grounds.
But, since the relocation EIS had merely included some small-arms firing ranges on the Northern Marianas, whereas the Joint Military Training EIS included plans to bomb, shell, and otherwise barrage Tinian and Pågan, they had thought the Navy had simply learned about the need to bombard the Northern Marianas sometime between 2010 and 2015. That is, they assumed that the addition of bombardment training to the latest EIS was an update rather than a deliberate attempt by the Navy to withhold information. As the two found through discovery, that was not the case.
The Navy knew as early as 2006 that, if Marines were to be relocated to Guam, they would likely need to conduct explosive training in the Northern Marianas.
According to the discovery documents, in August 2006, the Navy’s assistant secretary for installations and environment sent a memo to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps asking his office to compile a list of what Marines would need in order to be relocated to Guam. The Marines responded a month later with a list that included “potential off-island training requirements,” including tank, artillery, bombing, and other trainings on seven different islands in the Northern Marianas.
The Navy also asked US Pacific Command to weigh in, and in February 2007, Pacific Command sent its own list. Among those training exercises deemed “absolute” requirements for Marines stationed on Guam: weekly mortar, artillery, and beach-landing training, to be performed on Tinian with Guam and Pågan as possible alternative locations, plus quarterly “combined arms live fire training” on Tinian and Pågan, which would include dropping bombs on the islands.
The Navy started to conduct its environmental review based on these recommendations, but soon realized that it was never going to meet its deadline for implementing the relocation plan. So, in an effort to save time, Navy officials started striking training elements from the review process. By September 2008, they had removed any mention of bombs, shelling, mortars, and artillery from their initial review—leaving only basic shooting ranges on Tinian and nothing on Pågan.
The Marines explicitly warned the Navy that their plan was illegal. In a January 2009 presentation for the assistant secretary of the Navy, Navy researchers cited Marine concerns that “all ‘connected’ actions must be identified in a single EIS. To not study a ‘connected’ action or actions is ‘unlawful segmentation.’”
One undated internal document outlines the Navy’s potentially illegal strategy. In it, expanding the “EIS scope”—jargon for including all of the Marines’ training requirements in a single environmental-impact statement, as is legally required—is represented by a domino. The domino is poised to knock over a line of other dominoes labeled as various sources of funding and support for the troop relocation. Past the final domino, an explosion graphic reads, “Realignment Roadmap fails,” using the official name for the troop-relocation plan. Below, a thought bubble holds the words, “Expect litigation regardless of scope.”
“When [the Navy] did the 2010 environmental-impact statement, my clients had no idea what they had in store for the Northern Marianas,” said Henkin. “The Navy, however, absolutely knew that if Marines were stationed on Guam, they would have to do highly destructive training.”
In 2018, a federal district judge in the Northern Marianas ruled against the Alternative Zero Coalition, buying the Navy’s argument that the segmented EISs were legal because the live-fire ranges would have “independent utility” aside from the troop-relocation plan. But in September 2018, Henkin and King-Hinds appealed, and the case is currently being litigated in the Ninth Circuit.
What’s the Point?
Since the Navy revoked its draft EIS, relations between the residents and military have improved. When Saipan and Tinian were devastated by Super Typhoon Yutu in October 2018, US troops helped manage 200,000 tons of debris removal, built temporary roofs for partially destroyed homes, and set up tents for those rendered homeless.
According to Brad Ruszala, a public-affairs specialist for the Defense Department’s Joint Region Marianas Coordination office, the last few years have offered the military “the opportunity to kind of slow down and reassess what our needs are. And to get to know the folks here, too.”
Ruszala said that, having spent more time in the community, military representatives have gotten a better understanding of the opposition movement. “You get the human side of things,” he said.
But skeptics wonder why such reflection from the military took so long, especially since deploying the military in the region might not actually improve its readiness.
In 2012, Congress called upon the Department of Defense to “commission an independent study of its overseas basing presence of US military forces.” The resulting study, published by the RAND Corporation, found that, in terms of deployment speed to Asia—a main reason for having troops stationed in the deep Pacific—there is no advantage to having the Marines on Guam over having them stationed in California, because Guam-based Marines would need to use military ships docked in California anyway. Furthermore, it determined that the quality of life for Marines stationed on Guam would be lower than those in California because the Guam plan requires them to be stationed on the island for six months without their families. The RAND report also pointed out that US allies like Australia had recently offered to provide land for Marine bases and training grounds.
Art De Oro, a Chamorro Army veteran, pointed to findings like these as an example of how opposing the increased military presence in the Marianas is neither anti-military nor anti-American.
“It’s not unpatriotic for us to voice those opinions, because it is rational, it is informed,” he said. If Congress remains unsure whether the US will actually benefit from the buildup, “from our perspective as a local indigenous people … it’s hard for us to understand why you would do that to my home, where my kids have very finite resources.”
There are signs that the Defense Department still wants to create bombing ranges on parts of Tinian and all of Pågan. Military contractors have already begun to bulldoze tracts of Guam’s forests in preparation for the new garrison and firing ranges, and no alternative plans for training and relocating Marines have been introduced since 2015. Furthermore, the Navy’s fiscal year 2020 budget estimate, published in March, still includes a $66-million lease for Pågan under a group of items labeled “Major Planned Next Three Years.”
Fearing the worst, Northern Marianas residents are ramping up their organizing efforts again. In March, the local government published regulations for citizens interested in applying for agricultural homesteads on Pågan, creating opportunities for private-land ownership that are sure to complicate any military plans to seize the island. A handful of pioneers have already spent months on Pågan and adjacent islands, establishing water-catchment systems and other foundational infrastructure.
Experiencing the northern islands is “invaluable,” said Genevieve Cabrera, a co-founder of Guardians of Gåni’. Pågan is “a living, breathing part of our identity.”
“We are responsible for bringing that to the future generations.”