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.

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