Guam, U.S. military agree on plan to build firing ranges on ancestral land
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The government of Guam said Wednesday it will sign off on a controversial U.S. military plan to build Marine Corps training ranges on ancestral land.
The territorial government dropped opposition to machine gun and grenade ranges along the Pagat coastal forest after the Navy guaranteed unimpeded public access to several sites including a historic indigenous village, hiking trail and cave, according to a news release by Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo.
The training ranges are a key part of the planned transfer of 8,600 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014, but have stirred widespread opposition on the island in recent months — including a lawsuit pending against the Department of Defense in Hawaii district court — because the land is considered sacred by many indigenous Chamorro residents.
The announcement Wednesday was a significant victory for the U.S. military, which had delayed the project since September so it could work out an agreement with Guam to protect Pagat and other historic sites.
John Jackson, executive director of the Joint Guam Program Office, said the decision by the government of Guam sends a message to Congress that progress is being made on the training ranges.
The Navy could now finalize site plans for the ranges within the next couple of months, Jackson said.
Opposition from the Guam State Historic Preservation Office had been the main hold-up of the project, he said. The agency had opposed Navy plans to put the ranges on Pagat since they were unveiled in September, saying it would not agree to any military construction on the approximately 1,000-acre coastal forest.
Military use of the ranges threatened to restrict public access to the Pagat land throughout the year, but concessions by the Navy will now ensure the public uninhibited access to the Pagat Village historic and archeological site, a popular hiking trail that leads through the coastal limestone forest and a freshwater swimming area at the Marbo cave, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by Stars and Stripes.
On Wednesday, the head of the Guam State Historic Preservation Office, Lynda Aguon, said the new agreement struck with the Navy is “not perfect” but provides an “assurance that our historic properties are treated with special care, recognition and respect,” according to a letter she wrote to the Guam legislature.
Calvo called Aguon a “courageous woman” and said her decision to support the ranges will clear the way for about $1 billion in new military build-up projects on the island.
“There are a lot of people living in poverty, struggling to pay their bills, and looking for a good job,” Calvo said in a prepared statement. “I want to see this money flow into our economy quickly and help all Guamanians.”
Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by We Are Guahan — the Guam Preservation Trust and others claiming the DOD broke the law because it did not consider alternate sites for the ranges — is scheduled for a hearing in Hawaii district court in September. Leevin Camacho, an attorney and member of We Are Guahan, said the group still opposes the training ranges and any military construction in Pagat.
The government of Guam’s decision to support the project “doesn’t cure that,” Camacho said. “We got the feeling since the beginning that this would be settled in court.”