Firing range key to buildup: Raceway may not need to move
By Brett Kelman • Pacific Daily News • January 23, 2010
A plan to build a small-arms firing range on Guam's northeast coast has been one of the most commonly protested components of the coming military buildup, but it is also one of the most essential.
There is no buildup without a firing range, retired Marine Corps Col. John Jackson, director of the Joint Guam Program Office, said yesterday.
None of the existing ranges on Guam could be expanded to handle 8,500 Marines and the military's original plan to put a firing range on military property by Double Reef was shot down by the public, he said.
But Marines who transfer to Guam in the next few years will need a place to maintain their skill and certification with weapons, Jackson said. The Pagat area is the only suitable place left, according to the draft Environmental Impact Statement.
Regardless, some of the loudest voices against the buildup during the last two months have been opposed to the military's plans for this land.
Some of these conflicts -- including the relocation of the Guam International Raceway -- may be resolved, Jackson said. Others, such as concerns about access to Pagat Cave, are misunderstandings, he said.
When racers arrived at the raceway last night, buildup protesters were waiting for them.
GovGuam has invested about $7.3 million in the Guam International Raceway since it was built on Chamorro Land Trust land in 2001, but the draft EIS states that the raceway must be relocated.
Joe Naputi Jr., who has been volunteering his time as track manager for about four years, said many volunteers have worked hard to detour illegal drag racing onto the legal track.
"We spent a lot of money already to build this racetrack and we don't know if we have enough money to go and build another one elsewhere," he said.
Even if the military offers to pay for a replacement track of equal value somewhere else, it won't be the same place volunteers have poured their lives into, Naputi said.
Although the military's original plan for the firing range does require the raceway to move, this might change, Jackson said.
He said the Department of Defense is looking for a way to reorganize the gunfire trajectories and safety zones in the firing range so the raceway can stay put without Marines endangering each other.
It is possible the range and the raceway will become neighbors, he said.
Last night, Naputi said this possibility was a step in the right direction, but he wonders if racers would be safe next door to a firing range.
He also said the Department of Defense's indecisiveness didn't inspire a lot of confidence, and asked if it was that easy to change the plan, what is to stop them from changing it back?
"Which one is it?" Naputi said. "They are changing things left and right and we want to know the real truth. It's kind of senseless to tell us you are going to move us out of the way and then later on (say) we are neighbors. That's two different stories."
If the firing range is an essential part of the buildup, then protesters must realize they are objecting to a lot of new jobs, tax dollars and opportunity. Guam can't have one without the other, Carl Peterson said yesterday.
Peterson is a member of the Guam Chamber of Commerce board of directors who has high hopes for the buildup. He said many of the "emotional" protests to the firing range aren't worth jeopardizing the economic boom of the buildup.
Guam needs this, he said.
"We are in debt up to our ears and this income is going to help us (pay off) that debt," he said.
Peterson said the simplest benefit from the buildup will be additional tax dollars, which will help improve the troubled state of Guam's schools, health care and roads.
If the buildup brings $15 billion in spending to the island, GovGuam will make $600,000 from the gross receipts tax alone, he said.
After that, the federal government will dump tax dollars from the mainland into Guam's civilian roadways and infrastructure. And if GovGuam and the military share the island's new landfill, trash service will cost less for everyone.
These are just some of the benefits the buildup could bring, he said.
If there were no buildup, Guam would have to rely on a fading tourism industry and the future will be dark, he said. Japan's aging population is traveling less and competition from cheaper destinations -- such as Singapore and Bangkok -- is strong.
"In the long term, without additional investment of capital from the buildup, it can only mean our standard of living goes down," Peterson said.
If the Guam International Raceway doesn't have to move, some of the civilians who object to the firing range will be satisfied.
But there are still more conflicts out there.
•Cultural activists, such as Joe Quinata of the Guam Preservation Trust, have taken steps to draw national attention to the plight of the Pagat area, where the remains of an ancient Chamorro village are buried;
•Landowners such as Gloria Nelson have said they want to keep their land and the military should not be confident it can be bought; and
•Hikers such as Dave Lotz have said the public deserves access to natural beauties such as Pagat Cave.
Yesterday, Jackson said anyone who wants access to Pagat Cave will be able to during the 13 weeks a year when the firing range is not in use, and that it might be open to the public some weekends too.
This is "not very well articulated" in the draft EIS, he said.
The document suggests Pagat Cave will be off limits all the time, but this was never the plan, Jackson said.
Limited access may actually help protect the cave and the cultural remains, he said.
"There won't be any of the destructive activity going on down there that takes place today. I don't know if you've been down there, but there is a lot of trash down there," Jackson said. "... We would have people that would go down there to make sure it is kept clean."