By Maureen N. Maratita
Land in the islands of Micronesia is finite, but offers attractions for development and usage — whether to the U.S. military or to commercial interests.
Guam’s 210 square miles divides into roughly one third held by the U.S. military, one third held by the Government of Guam and one third held in private hands.
The U.S. rounds of Base Realignment Closures resulted in various lands being deemed no longer necessary for U.S. military requirements, and lands were handed to the Government of Guam for return to original owners, with some permitted exceptions.
Most notable among these large parcels of land were the about 1,700 acres of Naval Air Station, which operated alongside the A.B. Won Pat International Airport, Guam and was closed by the 1993 BRAC Commission.
Original landowners of land and the airport went head-to-head for decades on the issue of compensation — which saw the Federal Aviation weigh in on the issue — but the area has continued beyond court cases and developed into a busy industrial park and the Tiyan Parkway, which allows diversion of traffic from Barrigada through to the airport and Tamuning.
Private owners have had land returned in portions of Tiyan and sales and leases of returned land have spurred development in Guam.
Military bases attract commercial development and offer jobs (which is why BRAC was unpopular with communities). Activity has already begun along Rte. 3 in Dededo from Route. 1 to the U.S. Marine Corp’s Camp Blaz.
For example, the total economic impact value of Andersen Air Force base was calculated at $646 million for fiscal 2014 (the last complete economic impact figure available), which included payroll, construction, services, indirect jobs created and retiree payroll. Military personnel who live in the community also contribute to Guam’s economy. Andersen Air Force Base active-duty personnel have increased from 1,752 in 2000 to 2,187 in 2021, and their dependents from 1,973 in 2000 to 2,652 in 2021. When Marines Corps Air Wing personnel are stationed at Andersen, that number will go higher. About two-thirds of Andersen’s personnel and their families live off-base, according to Journal files.
In addition, tax dollars of all active personnel on-island are transmitted to the Government of Guam through Section 30 Section 30 of the Organic Act of Guam, which reverts income taxes paid by military personnel and federal civilian employees in Guam back to the island, when Guam is listed as their state of legal residence. Section 30 revenues for Guam have increased from averaging around $45 million to $50 million before fiscal 2013, to around $70 million to $75 million in the past several years, but that has also been due to better reconciliation and the addition of certain federal agencies.
As U.S. military interests in acquiring land in Guam changed, the concept of “net negative” began as part of DoD policy, emphasized in 2011 through a letter from Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work to then Gov. Edward B. Calvo, meaning that for any land acquired for the Guam realignment, a similar portion would be returned to the administration, ideally with less land in Navy hands. About four months ago, the Navy announced it would return about 210 acres of federal land, reducing its footprint by 807 acres since the beginning of the policy. Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero said she had asked for 2,596 acres. The governor is eyeing federal land for a medical campus to replace the aging Guam Memorial Hospital in Tamuning. She has talked about Rte. 15 in Mangilao as a site — specifically Eagle’s Field — a sports facility for American football, soccer and softball.
Of all the topics that Lt. Governor and Acting Governor Joshua F. Tenorio and the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Operations Michael M. Gilday may have discussed — that subject was one that each commented on directly.
“In particular, Acting Governor Tenorio expressed his appreciation for the U.S. Navy in facilitating the identification of land for a new public healthcare facility — a hallmark priority of the Leon Guerrero-Tenorio Administration,” a July 30 release said.
At a news conference on July 30, Gilday told Guam media, “When I met with the lieutenant governor earlier today, that was one area where we both agreed to continue to work together very closely and to make sure that not only are we meeting the needs of the Department of Defense, but at the same time … looking at where we can make every project a win-win for the people of Guam.”
Guam’s National Guard’s Adjutant General J.C. Esther Aguigui is also hoping that additional DoD land in Barrigada will go to the Guam Guard for expansion, she told the Marianas Business Journal (sister publication to Guam Business Magazine) in April. See, “Guarding the future: Expansion is part of the five-year plan — Marianas Business Journal (mbjguam.com)”
In Guam, both the Guam airport and Andersen Air Force Base have used each other’s airports as divert airfields in emergencies. Planes were diverted to Andersen in 2005 when a Northwest Airlines plane damaged its nose on the GIA runway, and as recently as September a U.S. Navy plane from Kadina Airforce Base in Okinawa landed at GIA.
In the Northern Mariana Islands public land leases are governed by the Marianas Department of Public Lands. Commercial leases until recently were limited to 25 years, with a 15-year extension, but have now risen to 40 years following legislation.
Private land ownership is set out in Article XII of the Northern Mariana Islands Constitution and relates to NMI descent of at least 25%. As the NMI’s population has seen intermarriage with individuals who are not of NMI descent, non-NMI descent residents desirous of land acquisition, and residents of NMI descent willing to sell to them, various efforts to change Article XII have arisen — to include this year, but none of them have been successful. Public Law 15-20 signed into law in 2006 allowed non-descent residents to own condominiums on private land above the ground level for 55 years.
A 50-year lease signed on Jan 1, 1983, between the Marianas Public Land Corp., the Commonwealth Ports Authority and the U.S. was pursuant to the Covenant that established the Commonwealth Northern Mariana Islands. For a total of $19, 520,600 — adjusted to $33 million to reflect land value at the time of signing — the U.S. leased 17,089 acres of Tinian, all of FDM and Tanapag Harbor in Saipan, as well as various “waters” until 2033. The U.S. also has the option to extend the lease until 2083. NMI governors have previously noted the lack of military development – an expectation held when the lease was signed.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial discussed renegotiating the lease in an interview with Guam Business Magazine, sister publication to the Journal in 2012.
Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres told the Journal on July 30 that he was glad to see the current exercises in Tinian, and any military activity after almost 40 years of the lease agreement. Torres has referred to a lack of activity in recent times, but has also expressed appreciation of the improvement work U.S. military groups are doing — such as on roads in Tinian and most recently at Chiget Beach.
In May 2019, the NMI government and the U.S. Department of Defense signed a $21.9 million 40-year lease agreement for the construction of a divert airfield in Tinian. However, that construction has been delayed, due to the sheer cost of the parts of the project, which include an airfield and supporting infrastructure, such as the fuel line and Requests for Proposal won’t appear for a while, and not until 2022. A contributing factor is the difficulty most U.S. based contractors have with estimating costs in an area they are unfamiliar with.
The Pacific Air Force commander told the Journal in September 2020 a permanent presence on Tinian is not planned, though that has been mooted in the past. But use of Tinian does offer the U.S. military another option in the region both for training and as an alternative site, should it need one.
The Compacts of Free Association give the U.S. the right to deny potential adversaries access to the territory, airspace and territorial waters of Palau, the Marshalls and the Federated States of Micronesia, understood as defense of those nations. But visits to Palau have occurred by Taiwanese, French and Australian vessels, according to Journal files.
Non-Marshallese cannot own land in the country. The Compact with the Marshalls guarantees U.S. access to Kwajalein Atoll and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. The current lease extends to 2066, with a 20-year option to renew. The $2 billion lease was signed in 2003 for 83 years.
Palau ownership of land is limited to Palauans. Since 2007, leases of land to foreign entities are allowed for up to 50 years, with renewal terms of up to an additional 49 years for a maximum total of 99 years.
In Palau, the ability for the U.S. to use the Roman Tmetuchl International Airport in Airai as a divert airfield as mentioned in Palau’s Compact of Free Association between the two countries is a development President Surangel S. Whipps has told the Journal he would welcome.
The FSM is comprised of 607 islands with a total land area of 271 square miles. Foreign ownership of land is not permitted.
Article VI of the 2003 amended Compact with the Federated States of Micronesia continues to govern the “Status of U.S. Forces” and says, “The Armed Forces of the United States may authorize the establishment, use, operation and maintenance within defense sites in the Federated States of Micronesia of service, educational and recreational facilities.”
After President David W. Panuelo was in Hawaii for meetings in July with Indo-Pacific Command officials, his office said, “The FSM and the United States collaborated on plans for more frequent and permanent U.S. armed forces presence, and have agreed to cooperate on how that presence will be built up both temporarily and permanently within the FSM, with the purpose of serving the mutual security interests of both nations.”
In follow-up comments in August, the Office of President told Guam Business Magazine, “During the high-level defense talks in Honolulu [in July], there was discussion and agreement between the FSM and U.S. governments for increasing temporary and permanent U.S. armed forces presence in the FSM. This will mean the development of certain types of infrastructure, a significant increase in U.S. armed forces visibility, and enhanced cooperation between the FSM and the U.S. governments. It does not necessarily mean a facility or group of facilities operating under the designation of “military base.”
Any upgrade the U.S. might require to FSM facilities would be a plus. Yap’s International Airport will see its runway and taxiway resurfaced as well as surrounding land leveled through a $37 million grant from the Federal Aviation Authority it received in July. To be fair, the FAA has kept larger regional airports to standard through grants, but it is smaller outlying islands that may benefit as Angaur in Palau did.
Cultural artifacts and ancient remains are prevalent in Mariana Islands, particularly in coastal areas. Numerous developments along Tumon Bay and Marine Corps Drive have slowed out of necessity and respect, most recently with remains found in early September at the site of the new Crowne Plaza in Tumon.
Gilday said recognition of local concerns regarding the environmental and cultural impact of Camp Blaz are important. “If we can’t work hand in glove with the people of Guam to make sure that as we expand our footprint that we are doing that in a way that’s completely respectful of cultural concerns and environmental concerns then we’re destined to fail.” He said he thinks “in good faith, we’ve shown we can do that.” Gilday said, “ … When we come across archeological items of interest as we work up at Camp Blaz that we actually have altered construction plans to respect … some grave sites that we have come across.”
Camp Blaz has its own archeologist, and the base notifies Guam’s State Historic Preservation Office for site inspections when artifacts and remains are unearthed.
According to Journal files, in September 2006 during the first phase of the $20 million-plus expansion, the then Guam Hotel Okura (now the Lotte Hotel Guam, previously the Aurora Resort & Spa) 18 ancient Chamorro human remains were found, along with cultural remnants dating to at least 3,000 years ago.
In 2013, 61 remains were excavated from the Core Tech International Agana Bridge restoration site. The Guam State Historic Preservation Office told the Journal at the time it would require further testing for each additional phase of road work along Route 1 between Routes 4 and 8. State Archaeologist John Mark Joseph told the paper there could be as many as 244 additional buried remains at the site, based on previous findings and the size of the area. The remains were eventually reinterred, with appropriate traditional ceremony.
Robert H. Jones Jr., CEO and chairman of Triple J Enterprises Inc. told the Journal in 2017, as the first phase of the Saipan Surfrider hotel in Chalan Kanoa opened, that the project had been largely delayed due to the discovery of ancient burial sites.
“We found 29 burial sites,” Jones said. “We called HPO (the Division of Historic Preservation); they have taken charge of that last year.” He said 15 full skeletons were removed from the sites, as well as unexploded ordnance. Two archaeologists — from Hawaii and Guam — were brought to Saipan by Triple J, Jones said. “It’s important to me to respect the culture and heritage of the Chamorro people,” Jones said at the time.
Federal guidelines issued by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and local law guide the treatment of archaeological burials.
Left over ordnance from World War II is also a concern.
In recent years the U.S. military has included the requirement that all military construction contracts include a search for munitions and explosives — or MEC — clearance.
MEC is what’s commonly known in the military as UXO, or unexploded ordnance — bombs, shells and other munitions and explosives leftover from combat or training that have not been detonated, but retain the ability to do so.
For the radar projects in Palau, the Norwegian People’s Aid will oversee MEC clearance to ensure the area is rid of hidden munitions. The NPA has been in Palau since April 1,2015 and works there to develop “the knowledge and skill to take care of the types of ammunition left over from World War II.”
If President Surangel S. Whipps gets his way and Peliliu has a runway built by the U.S. military as Angaur did, then leftover ordinance may still be a serious consideration. Peliliu – about a 90-minute boat ride from Koror through the Rock Islands – suffered some of the heaviest fighting in the region in World War II. The U.K. non-profit Cleared Ground Mining has reportedly spent several years clearing thousands of pieces of ordnance in Peliliu.
In 2015 an international team was in Peliliu seeking Japanese remains, prior to the visit to Palau of the Emperor and Empress of Japan. The group did reportedly find some of the remains of the thousands of Japanese soldiers whose remains are still missing.