Forum Bulletin

Victory for Advocates in Guam 

01-12-2012 00:00

In November 2010 the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Guam Preservation Trust, and We Are Guåhan filed a major lawsuit against the U.S. Navy in federal court. The Complaint asserted that the Navy failed to comply with federal environmental law in its decision to locate a firing range complex at Pågat, one of Guam’s last publicly accessible ancient villages. The decision to take on the Navy, a major economic force on the small island, was the groups’ last recourse. The extensive advocacy campaign had succeeded in convincing almost everyone but Navy leadership that it was unacceptable to acquire such a significant cultural site for weapons training.

A year later, however, the Navy appears to have given in. In a surprise move last November, the agency filed a declaration with the court indicating that it will conduct a two-year supplemental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and commit to full public participation in its decision-making process. This is precisely the outcome the advocates had asked for. In response to the Navy’s filing, federal judge Leslie Kobayashi dismissed the case as moot, marking a relatively swift victory for the plaintiffs.

While the Navy’s only commitment at present is to conduct a new study to further examine alternative range locations, the shift from its initial position is monumental.  It is unlikely that the Navy would ultimately choose the same location for weapons training after the outcry caused by its original plan. Indeed, support on Guam to “preserve and protect” Pågat (pronounced P-ah-get) Village has been bipartisan and extensive. At one point the territorial legislature voiced its unanimous opposition and emphasized the point in bold and italics in its comments to the Navy. The extensive media attention to the issue made Pågat symbolic of a broader struggle for self-governance within the indigenous Chamorro diaspora, reinforcing the community’s cultural identity despite political control by foreign governments.  

Pågat as a Traditional Cultural Property

To understand the significance of Pågat to the Chamorro, one must have a basic understanding of Guam’s history and culture. The island’s location in the trade wind corridor from Acapulco to the Spice Islands gave it a major strategic advantage to colonial powers, starting with Spain in the 1600s. To bring Christianity to the indigenous inhabitants, the Spanish consolidated the population, spread out among coastal villages, into new Spanish villages. Pågat was one of a handful of major village sites documented on early Spanish maps, and it is uniquely positioned on the northeast coast at the base of a large limestone bluff.

The ancient villagers’ only source of freshwater was deep inside limestone caves on a densely-forested coastal plain. These places were essential to the natives’ survival and were undoubtedly revered and protected. They still are.  At the most famous cave site, known simply as “Pågat,” visitors can swim in a serene pool in a dark room 20 feet below the earth’s surface. Educators take groups of students on hikes in the surrounding area where they can identify remnants of ancient life: medicinal plants, basalt grinding stones, pot shards, and latte stones, which form the foundations of ancient homes which are prominent contemporary symbols of the Chamorro identity. Most importantly, within the broader landscape of Pågat Village, many Chamorro acknowledge the living spirits of the ancestors and their dwelling places in large banyan trees.  Respect for Pågat’s former inhabitants was a key motivating factor in contesting the Navy’s plan.

The Navy’s Plan: Live-Fire Weapons Training at Pågat

Prior to 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had never engaged extensively in a preservation advocacy issue in a U.S.-administered Pacific territory. But the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), NEPA, and other laws apply to federal undertakings in these distant places and federal agencies can be held legally accountable when they cut corners. A common legal error occurs when agencies make a particular decision and then use the environmental review process to rationalize that decision post hoc, or after the fact.

The threat to Pågat first became public in late 2009 when the Navy, through its consultant AECOM, released a more than 10,000-page, nine volume Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to study the impacts of a major realignment of Marines from Okinawa. Today Guam contains approximately 170,000 people and the “Buildup,” as the troop movement is conventionally known, would add up to 80,000 additional residents, according to one estimate. In the Draft EIS, the Navy envisioned placing a series of live-fire Marine Corps training ranges in the “Route 15” area facing east on a limestone terrace above the Pågat Village site. The Navy anticipated acquiring the public land from the territorial government and did not analyze alternative locations in the Draft EIS, despite its plan to curtail access.

Advocacy and the Administrative Process

By February 2010, the National Trust and other groups had submitted extensive comments outlining inadequacies in the Draft EIS, with a specific focus on the firing ranges at Pågat. Concerns that the report lacked a credible analysis of the impacts of the Buildup were validated by the Environmental Protection Agency which gave the Draft EIS its lowest rating: “inadequate.” 

But it was the consultation process under Section 106 of the NHPA that gave cultural resource advocates their best opportunity to discuss in person with Navy officials why Pågat was the wrong place to build a weapons training facility. Though the Navy held public meetings to take comments on the Draft EIS, it never made clear that affected groups had the opportunity to participate as “consulting parties” to help shape a Programmatic Agreement (PA) to avoid, minimize, and mitigate harm to historic sites. The National Trust provided letter templates to several local groups which soon joined consultation meetings, putting added pressure on the military to move the footprint of the firing ranges. 

In the end, the Navy was unable to reach consensus on the draft PA with the local government by the time it issued its final Record of Decision in the NEPA process. As a result, the legal validity of the PA will remain in flux as NHPA requires agencies to complete the consultation “prior to” reaching a decision under NEPA.

Protests, Negotiations, and a Fair Warning

In July 2010 the Navy invited senior administration officials from the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior among others to tour Pågat and meet with local leaders on Guam.  The advocates came as well.  Nick Yost, a partner at the law firm SNR Denton, LLC travelled to the island with Associate Matthew Adams and National Trust staff members Anthea Hartig and myself. Yost’s firm had generously offered his pro bono assistance in an attempt to convince the Navy that it would be violating the law by placing the ranges at Pågat without further analysis.  Yost brought sound credibility to his argument; as the lead draftsperson of the NEPA regulations during the Carter administration he had written the very rules the Navy was to follow.  

Meanwhile, advocates continued to raise their voices. Joe Quinata, chief program officer of the Guam Preservation Trust, went on a tireless campaign to explain why the broader Pågat Village landscape should remain open to the public as traditional cultural property.  The Navy had recognized and argued that it would protect three distinct archeological sites listed in the National Register.  However these three sites only constituted a part of the area’s significance.  In a widely viewed local school play, the protagonist students form a human chain to prevent the weapons training over Pågat, urged on by the voices of Puntan and Fu’una, the legendary brother and sister that created Guam (also known as Guåhan in the Chamorro language). Advocates sponsored large celebrations for Pågat with song, dance, and chanting; much of the island unified around the cause. The National Trust listed the site as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, the first such listing in a Pacific territory and the designation was proudly announced by the Guam Preservation Trust on Save Pågat T-shirts, even billboards. Leevin Camacho of We Are Guåhan, a group composed of young people who organized in response to the Buildup, used Facebook extensively to distribute information and talking points.

When the Record of Decision made clear that the Navy would retain its authority to build the ranges at Pågat without a public process, advocates had no choice but to seek legal recourse. The Navy’s commitment was entirely discretionary, and, even though it would argue in court that it never made a decision, it offered no promises of further analysis. A lawsuit was the last resort.  


That Pågat became a particular focal point of Guam’s concern with the Buildup is telling of the island’s contemporary value system. For native inhabitants, young and old, a Chamorro identity is still largely premised on a respect for the traditions that remain despite waves of political control by colonial powers. Most recently, in World War II, a brutal three-year Japanese occupation of Guam ended through liberation by U.S. forces in 1944. Today, respect for the U.S. military’s mission remains strong; more soldiers serve per capita in Guam than any other jurisdiction in the U.S.  But the struggle to save Pågat indicates that such support is not unconditional. If the military is to maintain popular support, it must act with sensitivity to the island’s culture and recognition of its traditions and beliefs.  In this spirit, it will be in the Navy’s best interest to keep Pågat open as an invaluable repository of cultural information—a living museum—its value precisely in its freedom from nuisances of modern life and accessibility to present and future generations.

#AsianAmerican #intangibleheritage #TraditionalCulturalProperties #NationalTrustPartnersNetwork #Legal #ForumBulletin #Diversity

Subtitle:Navy Drops Plans to Construct Firing Ranges near Ancient Village Site
Author(s):Brian Turner