Activists protest outside new nature center
by Jean Hudson, KUAM News
Sunday, April 29, 2007
The opening ceremony on Saturday for the new Nature Center at the National Wildlife Refuge in Ritidian was met with protest. The refurbished Navy facility sits on property that was once owned by Chamorro families, and when the military needed the properties for national defense, the properties were taken away through the condemnation process. But a few original landowners or their descendants say they weren't justly compensated, and one senator is trying to put a balance between the families and the purpose of the refuge.
Senator Jim Espaldon (R), who delivered opening remarks for Saturday's opening ceremony for the Nature Center, says the policy of the local government is to support the local people in its quest to right some wrongs in the past. But the freshman policymaker also presented a harsh reality, saying, "Land is a very dear and close to the heart-type of issue for the people of this island and especially now as we face a dramatic change in our island with the oncoming of the military buildup. We're going to see a lot more new businesses come in and we're going to see the dilution of the Chamorro people on their own island to become a minority in their own land."
The senator acknowledged that he was walking a very thin line when he attended the ceremony. Espaldon has oversight over the committees on Judiciary and Cultural Affairs, and sometimes those two matters conflict. Espaldon said, "What responsibilities do we have in terms of our culture? Do we allow people who come to our island to dictate how we are going to live and what kind of quality of life we're going to enjoy on this island? Or do we share with them exactly how we want this island to be and again it's not going to be an extreme, because yes even though we say this is exactly how it is - there's middle ground."
Members of The Chamorro Nation alongside original landowners and their families are protesting the presence of the Nature Center. Olympia Cruz says her family owned a little more than 7.5 acres of property in the Ritidian area, telling KUAM News, "They keep saying that we sold it. We never sold the land. I don't know where they get the ideal. And they say that we got compensated. Show us what compensation we had."
In reply, Senator Espaldon said, "Whether they were compensated justly or not is questionable. When you're under eminent domain proceedings and the government tells us that we need this land, you need to move, we will pay you for it - they have all the marbles on their side, what can you say?"
Catherine McCollum says her grandfather's Ritidian properties were also condemned. She stated, "The land was condemned, I believe, in 1963 and even then the only compensation they paid my grandfather was for a house was here. But continuation for compensation it never happened." Again, the senator said, "The local people have been very patriotic. They have always supported many of the doctrines and many of the principles that the American civilization was founded upon. But in the process every once in a while the consideration for the local people get lost."
Refuge manager Chris Bandy agreed with the senator, concurring that the refuge's purpose is to preserve the habitat for the benefit of future generations. He said, "It's something we'll have to work through. I think Senator Espaldon spoke well to the issue that we're all here. The refuge is not going to go away. We expect to have habitat here for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If some day the land becomes sovereign or the land reverts back to the people, as he said it'll be in as good a condition or better condition than when it was utilized in the 1960's."
"One thing that is reality today," said Espaldon, "is that even though it is our aspiration to get this land back from the federal government return it perhaps to the local people, the fact of the matter is that it is today under the control of the federal control and it is a wildlife refuge and it has the ability to preserve a good part of our cultural identity."