Monday, October 27, 2008

Submerged lands a ‘sensitive issue’ for feds

Monday, 27 October 2008 00:00 By Gemma Q. Casas - Variety News Staff

The Fitial administration is upbeat over the prospect of resuming talks over the CNMI’s submerged lands, but a federal official said it shouldn’t be so optimistic because the issue may be overshadowed by the change of administration in the U.S.

President Bush is leaving the White House on Jan. 20, 2009 —or less than three months from now.

The federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the CNMI’s request for a 12-mile jurisdiction over its submerged lands is a sensitive issue that will set a precedent if granted.

Federal courts have ruled that the U.S. owns the CNMI’s submerged lands.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial met with the president’s senior environmental advisor, James Connaughton, who is also the chairman of the White House Council for Environmental Quality.

The governor said their meeting ended on a positive note and he expressed hope that Connaughton will act as his bridge to persuade the White House to consider granting the islands and other insular areas up to 12 miles jurisdiction over their submerged lands.

Connaughton was on Saipan last week on a fact-finding mission amid the Bush administration’s plan to designate as a marine monument up to 115,000 square miles of waters around the three uninhabited northern islands — Uracas, Maug and Asuncion.

Bush is expected to act on the proposal before his term ends.

Local officials, however, are strongly opposed to the project amid fears it may result to a restriction of access to their ancestral marine heritage.

A strongly worded four-page letter that the governor, Senate President Pete P. Reyes and Speaker Arnold I. Palacios co-signed was distributed to the local media on Thursday.

The administration and the Legislature, however, said that letter was withdrawn and wasn’t supposed to be released to the public.

“I do not believe Mr. Connaughton ever read the letter, however, because Governor Fitial decided to withdraw it. I believe this was done in the spirit of cooperation that was forged at our very productive meeting on Wednesday. To my knowledge, most of the copies were collected, to be destroyed. I myself collected a number of them,” said Reyes in a statement.

But the Senate president said though they have softened their stance on the marine monument issue, they stand firm that it shouldn’t be rushed because so much is at stake.

“In essence, [the letter] stated that if the [Bush] administration was attempting to rush a designation on the people of the CNMI without meaningful discussion of our concerns and attention paid to our submerged lands issues, we would like to have no part in the designation and would prefer that the designation not occur,” he said.

“We are willing to discuss these important issues and are willing to make them a priority. We hope we can find a common ground,” he added.

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