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US Plans to Expand War Games in Ecologically Rich Mariana Islands

Naval training exercises threaten local communities and environment

The United States military assumed control the Mariana Islands during World War II  and has been waging war on the environment there ever since. Recent proposals to expand the range for Navy training exercises in this archipelago in the northwestern Pacific Ocean represent the latest frontier in this battle, and could be devastating to local communities as well as wildlife.

plane dropping bombsPhoto by SSgt. B. Zimmerman/Wikimedia CommonA file photo of bombing exercises on Farallon de Medinilla Island. Environmental activists say naval exercises have destroyed much of this island.

By many accounts, military trainings have already had a tremendous impact on the region that’s composed of two US jurisdictions — the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the territory of Guam. Military bombing exercises have destroyed much of at least one island — Farallon de Medinilla — and naval exercises have impacted large tracts of open ocean.

In 2010, the Navy training range in the region was expanded to encompass roughly 500,000 square nautical miles of ocean. “Right now, it is the largest range in [Department of Defense’s] inventory,” says Leevin Camacho, a member of We are Guåhan, a cultural and environmental justice advocacy group in Guam.

The Navy still wants more, and is now asking to nearly double the training range, extending it to 984,469 square nautical miles.  It has named this expansion — which is part of the “Pacific Pivot,” a strategy aimed at shifting the US military’s focus to the Asia-Pacific region — the “Mariana Island Training and Testing” (MITT) area.

“[The expanded area] would be larger than Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and New Mexico combined,” Camacho says.

“The Navy’s whole approach to the Marianas is shoot first and ask questions later,” says Michal Jasny, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We know very little about the populations of whales, dolphins, and other marine life around the Marianas. Yet the navy is proceeding with a massive militarization of the islands and surrounding waters. It is grossly irresponsible to proceed in this way.”

What we do know doesn’t bode well. “We know marine mammals depend on hearing to find mates, to find food, to avoid predators, to situate themselves in the ocean — in short, for virtually everything they need to do to survive and reproduce in the wild,” explains Jasny. “[We also know] that navy sonar has a range of impacts, from disrupting foraging, to causing hearing loss, to fatally injuring whales and driving them onto shore.”

The Navy estimates that expanded training activities would cause 59 whales and dolphins to suffer permanent hearing damage every year. Thousands more would suffer temporary hearing damage. Other impacts include those on sea turtles, fish, marine habitat, and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.  Environmental activists say the exercises would violate the National Environmental Policy Act and other US environmental laws.

photoname Photo by LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA CorpsThe expanded exercises would include war games on ecologically and culturally important
Pagan Island.

In addition to this ocean-based training expansion, a separate Navy proposal targets the vibrant Pagan Island for destructive military training exercises. This island was formerly inhabited, but was evacuated in 1981 during a volcanic eruption. It is now home to roughly a dozen people and many former residents still hope to return and reestablish their lives there. The island has numerous endemic and endangered species. The Navy has not yet released a draft environmental impact statement for its proposed activities on Pagan Island.  However, advocates have launched a campaign against the exercises.

“[Pagan] is culturally important, anthropologically important, and biologically important,” says Dr. Michael Hadfield, a zoology professor at the University of Hawaii. “[And] when the military takes an island for live-fire training, they destroy it.”

A local human rights lawyer, Julian Aguon, underscores this point: “I situate what is going on now as… the latest incarnation of a much longer geopolitical process, and that’s been the militarization, the nuclearization, and colonization of this whole side of the ocean, this whole western Pacific.”

“This is our home,” adds Camacho. “We really look at it not just as fighting for dolphins and whales, but we are trying to protect resources that have belonged to our people for thousands of years, before the US military.”

The Navy is currently accepting comments on the Mariana Islands Training and Testing Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which assesses the impact of the expanded ocean training range. Voice your concern about the proposal here. All comments must be submitted by December 11, 2013.

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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The most powerful enemy of the US are terrorists. No other country’s navy is in any way competitive with the US. If US spent fraction of the money for peace efforts instead of war efforts the world would a better place to live.

By Dzidka on Fri, December 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Hi Jeric,

Pagan is an island with an active volcano on it.  There have been at least 10 eruptions since 1985.  So many and of such magnitude that the island had previously been declared uninhabitable by the CNMI government and its residents evacuated.  The volcano on Pagan is still active.  Since the island is truly always an eruption away from being uninhabitable I can think of no better place to do this type of training.

You use the word “sacred” to describe Pagan.  I was born and raised in the Marianas and this is a new phenomenon here.  First Pagat and now Pagan have been declared “sacred” by a new generation who desperately seem to be looking for something to believe in.  I can attest that my generation and many generations before me did not and do not think of Pagat or Pagan in that way.  I am not saying your belief is wrong as you are entitled to your beliefs but do not think that the majority of
Chamorros think that way.  Further you do not speak for all Chamorros.

As far as the “many many” training facilities you seem to think the US has you truly do not know what you’re talking about.  The US has zero facilities where they can do everything all together like they can at Pagan.  At Pagan they can move large fleets of ships, bring in air assets, land and maneuver large groups of troops as well as conduct live fire exercises.  All in one place and all at one time with all forces together.  This will greatly enhance the capabilities of our troops.

Since you asked me a question let me ask you this:  Are you really saying you do not want your
fellow countrymen, some who may be your own blood, to have the best training available to them?  No need to answer since I didn’t answer yours.  But just remember there are other opinions out there that deserve to be heard and will be heard.

By RC on Thu, December 05, 2013 at 1:52 am

To RC,

Before we “forget”, let “us” acknowledge that the island of Pagan and all of the other Marianas Islands don’t belong to “our” military or fathers, sons, or mothers for them to train on, for them to do what they will… People, live their… they raise their families there. Aside from it being “ecologically rich”, the people of Pagan (and, yes, there are people who come from there…), due to volcanic activity, travel to and from their land. It being vacant of families for one period of time, does not entitle the US military (or any military power for that matter) to come in and TAKE and DESTROY it so that its native people can no longer return, no longer enjoy in its rich beauty, its resources, even in its challenges. What the land affords to them and, more personally, my family back home on Guahan, are lessons that we (“we” as in, people from the Marianas Islands) make a part of our even RICHER cultural knowledge!  These islands are “occupied” by foreign powers and are being used for UNNECESSARY training. Unnecessary, because 1)the US is already thee largest and MOST powerful military regime (which already occupies the air, land, and water) in its current state. 2)The US already has MANY MANY “training” facilities to practice everything they plan on “strengthening”... but, and even more importantly so… 3) WAR, violence, money-capitalism, etc. are unnecessary for our (as in ALL people’s) happiness, for our survival.

Are you actually saying, that it’s okay to decimate the land because we so desperately need to do that in order to SURVIVE? YOU, people like you, obviously don’t realize the amount of excess we live in. And, yes, I used the collective pronoun “we”, because I too live in excess still. The difference(s) between you and I and people like you is/are that… I’m critical, I can THINK for myself… I have refused to enjoy in a life of ignorance and “comfort” that is so fueled by the American exceptionalism that has jaded and blinded us as a nation. Claps to you for perpetuating the dangerous and vicious realities that our country enables and PRACTICES in, on a FREQUENT and regular basis.

This is NOT just an issue of protecting an ecologically rich island… this is about acknowledging, respecting, celebrating the LIVES and WAYS of “others”. The differences between human beings.

Our Islands are Sacred. Please, remain curious, and look further into this matter. Look up “Our Islands are Sacred campaign” on google and please contact your politicians on these issues. Pacific Islanders on Guahan (Guam) do not have the right to vote for matters that concern the use of THEIR island and the surrounding Marianas Islands; therefore, Pacific Islanders stateside must react to protect our sacred islands, here.

Decolonize the mind.

By Jeric Smith on Fri, November 29, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Though Pagan residents may be far and remote from the fast-lane lifestyle of the rugged and ruthless, we keep abreast of global concerns and yes, including about the so-called pacific strategy or pivot. I suggest you consider reading Tom Engelhardt’s article on “Why Washington Just Can’t Stop Making War” in Common Dreams. I also encourage reading the following:
  Bombing Paradise: The Pentagon Expands its List of Pacific Islands Targeted for Destruction
October 21, 2013
Moana Nui & Rolynda Jonathan / OceanaTV & Michael Hadfield / The Sierra Club & NDJ World Mobile
In Environmentalists Against War
The US military is considering seizing two islands in the Northern Marianas to use as explosive training sites. Tinian and Pagan are being explored as potential sites for live explosive training as part of the US’ military $12.1 billion build-up in the Pacific. Pagan Island has been inhabited by Chamorro people for more than 2,000 years and the island has provided a pristine habitat for a range of unique animals and plants, many of them endemic, rare and endangered.

  Sardinia: Cancer, Contamination, and Militarization in Paradise
Need to test some new weapons? Bomb paradise!
By Helen Jaccard,

  Ten Years After The Bombing Stopped:
Apr 17, 2013
By Helen Jaccard, David Swanson
Vieques Still Struggles With Environmental Catastrophe U.S. Military Wrought

The people of Vieques still want their land really returned to them, cleaned up and carcinogen free.
  12 Beautiful Islands The U.S. Military Has Tested Weapons On
Michelle Broder Van Dyke

The U.S. military plans to practice live fire training at Pagan island in Micronesia, which is home to many plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. It’s just one of many gorgeous islands where the U.S. has practiced war.posted on August 26, 2013 at 11:58pm EDT

  ‘Increased’ FDM bombings scored
Memo to governor cites accelerated erosion, end to fishing in area
By Haidee V. Eugenio, July 30, 2013
In a pointed memo to Gov. Eloy S. Inos, Department of Lands and Natural Resources Secretary Arnold I. Palacios said the U.S. Navy’s proposal to increase restricted areas surrounding Farallon de Mendinilla can only be an indication of significant increase in bombings “that will destroy the island and its surrounding reefs.”

As Tom Engelhardt stated"No other nation’s military comes within a mile of ...the advanced and unchallenged military power…like the U.S. armed forces…[with the]ability to puverize and destroy, kill and maim, blow up and kick down [that]has grown in this new century.”

By lee sablan on Wed, November 27, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Lest we forget this is our military and our fathers, sons, mothers and daughters that need to train in order to defend the rest of us.  There is no area where there would be no impact to the environment from the required training.  Every thing we do, whether it’s driving down the road or buying a steak for dinner impacts the environment.  DoD is doing its utmost to lessen their impact but the training is needed.  I wouldn’t want our military to not be the best trained military in the world.

By RC on Wed, November 27, 2013 at 1:50 am

Thanks for your article on the Navy’s plan to expand its war games in the Marianas Archipelago resulting in further contamination of the surrounding waters and food chain.

By lee sablan on Sun, November 24, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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