U.S. to Convey Title for Submerged Lands to Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Presidential proclamation excepts submerged lands for military training and national marine monument islands until coordinated management plan developed
WASHINGTON, DC – The Government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) will receive title to submerged lands extending three geographical miles seaward from the islands’ coasts, but today the President withheld the transfer of submerged lands adjoining two islands where U.S. forces conduct military training and three islands in the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument until coordinated management plans can be developed to protect these resources.
By law, the official conveyance of authority for the vast majority of submerged lands in the CNMI will be effective tomorrow, January 16, 2014. The relatively small areas withheld today could be transferred to the CNMI when agreements are negotiated with federal agencies which ensure protection of the military training areas adjacent to Tinian and Farallon de Medinilla islands and ensure the protection of pristine natural resources immediately surrounding the islands of Farallon de Pajaros (Uracas), Maug, and Asuncion.
The conveyance of submerged lands to the CNMI provides the local government authority over the seabed, subsoil, water column and surface water resources in the three-mile coastal zone, including jurisdiction over all mineral, energy and fishing development.
“The conveyance reflects this Administration’s longstanding, strong support for granting the CNMI rights similar to those accorded other territories for their surrounding submerged lands,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Eileen Sobeck. “We have also consulted extensively with CNMI leaders and gained an understanding regarding the need for a protective management plan for the submerged lands off military-use islands and in the national marine monument.”
Sobeck continued, “The people of the CNMI are well aware of their treasures and supported the creation of the monument because they believed it will bring federal assets for marine surveillance, protection and enforcement to the northern islands. They were and are the first preservationists of these islands and included protections in their 1978 constitution to preserve the three northernmost islands for the benefit of the people. This Administration remains committed to working expeditiously with CNMI leaders to protect the outstanding resources in the national marine monument.”
The Territorial Submerged Lands Act (Public Law 93-435), which became law in 1974, two years before CNMI became a U.S. Commonwealth, did not include CNMI. Until Congress amended that statute last fall (Public Law 113-34 (Sept. 17, 2013), CNMI was the only populated U.S. territory that did not have title to the submerged lands in that portion of the United States territorial sea. The law also provided the President of the United States the authority to withhold the transfer of some or all of these submerged lands for reasons of national interest, including defense preparedness and environmental protection
The onshore lands and submerged lands off Tinian and Farallon de Medinilla are essential for ensuring that U. S. forces forward deployed to the Western Pacific are adequately trained and ready to respond immediately and effectively to orders from the National Command Authority, and for ensuring the safety of citizens of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Today’s presidential proclamation also excepts from transfer the submerged lands surrounding the islands of Farallon de Pajaros (Uracas), Maug, and Asuncion. These islands are among the most biologically diverse in the Western Pacific, with relatively pristine coral reef ecosystems that have been proclaimed objects of scientific interest and reserved for their protection as the Islands Unit of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, established by Presidential Proclamation No. 8335 on Jan. 6, 2009. That proclamation assigned management responsibility for the national marine monument to the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with the Secretary of Commerce.
The submerged lands of these islands are being withheld to allow time for the Department of Commerce (via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the Department of the Interior, and the Government of CNMI to negotiate a coordinated management agreement for the national monument. The Department of the Interior could transfer these submerged lands to the Government of CNMI once a management agreement that is sufficiently protective is developed or when the Secretary of the Navy and the Government of CNMI have entered into an agreement that ensures protection of military training within the excepted area. The federal government is committed to working through these matters with CNMI in an expeditious manner.
The CNMI is a Western Pacific archipelago of about 15 islands with a total land area of about 183.5 square miles (475.26 km2) and a population of about 53,000, ninety percent of whom live on the capitol island of Saipan. The CNMI is located about 1500 miles east of the Philippines and 1200 miles southeast of Japan.
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