Monday, November 30, 2009

Good Friday trail may be paved

Good Friday trail may be paved

By Brett Kelman • Pacific Daily News • November 30, 2009

Frank Reyes has lived in the shadow of a cross for 20 years and says he would fight to keep it that way.

Reyes, 69, was building Christmas decorations with his family in the yard of their Umatac home on Monday. Several wooden crosses stood on the peak of Mount Jumullong Manglo behind Reyes' house, as if watching over the family.

Every year, when thousands of local Catholics return to the peak to pray, their trek starts at Reyes' yard. His family gives out bottles of water and feeds as many people as they can.

"I've been a Catholic all my life and I've followed these old people up the mountain every year," Reyes said. "No matter how old they are, if they still can walk, they'll climb the mountain."

But the coming military buildup may change how those residents reach the mountaintop, where participants hike every Good Friday to remember the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

The Department of Defense plans to convert the existing hiking trail into a paved access road for military vehicles. The mountain will also be closed one week a month.

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Study released on Nov. 20, the military plans to reserve a large portion of land between Agat and Umatac as a "maneuver training area" for the thousands of Marines that will transfer to Guam in a few years.

Much of the land is already owned by the military, but some landowners will have no choice but to sell or lease their property to the federal government. Some of the landowners will like this and some won't, although everyone will still be "properly compensated," the EIS states.

The Marines need this land so they have space to train with as many as 200 personnel at once, according to the EIS. They would use the space for jungle training and land navigation for 12 weeks a year, day and night.

A comparison of maps in the EIS and the Office of the Governor's Guam MapBook shows that the mountain's peak falls about 500 feet inside the training area.

Victor Torres, a GovGuam geographic information system manager, confirmed the mountaintop is inside the training zone after comparing maps to satellite imagery.

At least one helicopter landing zone will be built very close to the mountain's peak, according to the EIS.

"People have been hiking up there for years and no one has denied access for them or anything," Torres said. "It would be good neighbors of DOD if they let that practice continue."

They will, said Annette Donner, Naval Base Guam spokeswoman.

The Navy has owned the land for years and allowed hikers to climb the mountain, she said. The military buildup won't change that.

As long as the Marines aren't using the land for training, civilians will still be allowed to hike the mountain, Donner said Wednesday.

But how people reach the peak could change.

According to the EIS, the Department of Defense's preferred plan to access their new training area is to build a paved access road that leads close to mountaintop.

That road would be built on top of the existing hiking trail that is used on Good Friday every year. DOD would control the road, the document states.

Locked, unmanned gates and barriers would bar civilian vehicles from using the road, but pedestrians would still be allowed when the military wasn't using the area.

A backup plan would leave the trail as it is and the military would use off-road vehicles to get to the training area, according to the EIS.

"Whether it's a trail or whether they pave it, that's not going to change our policies for access to the crosses," Donner said.

But the trail is meant to be hard, Reyes said.

Currently, when thousands of people hike to the peak on Good Friday, they follow a roughly cut path through the jungle and stop at 14 Stations of the Cross to pray. Participants carry heavy wooden crosses through mud, jungle and fields of sword grass.

They climb to feel some of the hardship Jesus felt when he dragged a cross before he was crucified, Reyes said.

"This is what they want. This kind of trail that is rough," Reyes said. "They don't want to bulldoze the place and put black-top and all that. They won't like that."

But not everyone would object to an easier climb up the mountain.

Cerila Rapadas, executive director of Catholic Social Service, said a paved road may allow some Catholics to make the trek for the first time in years. Catholic Social Service is a local organization that helps the elderly and the disabled.

"Some people might want to make the hike but they are slightly disabled or they have been using a wheelchair and they are unable to do so," she said. "The trail itself is a form of sacrifice."

A compromise would be best, Rapadas said. If the military could build their access road without disturbing the hiking trail, believers could hike to the top however they choose, she said.

This way, more people would reach the crosses together every year, she said.
Plans could change

The plans in the draft EIS aren't set in stone, and feedback from local residents could change the military's plans for the mountainside.

"The military is going to find some opposition to this, that's for sure," said Umatac Mayor Dean Sanchez last week. The mountaintop is in Umatac.

Earlier this month, retired Marine Col. John J. Jackson, director of the Joint Guam Program Office, said residents like Reyes and Sanchez have 90 days to provide comments that could potentially re-write the military's plans.

For example: If the military was planning to erect a building in an area that contained ancient Chamorro ruins it isn't aware of, public comments might convince them to build elsewhere instead.

Donner said objection to a paved access road on a culturally significant trail was a perfect example of a comment on the draft EIS.

Sanchez encouraged the public to rally together and oppose the plans for the mountain. He wasn't certain it would work, but said Guam residents would regret it if they didn't try.

"We are going to need the help of the archbishop, because the faithful will follow him," Sanchez said. "We will make a stand, but as to how effective that is ... it matters to the residents."

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