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Stars and Stripes May 1, 2005

Bigger bombing range planned for islet near Guam

200-acre island was subject of legal battle with environmentalists

By Lisa Burgess

ARLINGTON, Va. — In another sign of Guam’s growing strategic importance for the Defense Department, U.S. military officials are planning to expand a training range located about 150 miles from the island, according to the commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces.

Farallon de Medinilla, a 1.7-mile-long island leased by the Navy from the Pacific Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, is the only remaining location in the Pacific Rim where the Pentagon can realistically expect to expand U.S. training facilities, Gen. Paul Hester said Thursday.

“We have a desire — and there is an acceptance by our friends in Guam to help us — to start thinking and planning of how we would develop a small exercise area amongst the islands of Guam and the surrounding area,” Hester told reporters in Washington.

“We see that this as probably the last [range] that we would [enlarge] on our land structure … in the Pacific,” he said.

Located 45 nautical miles (52 statute miles) from Saipan, Farallon de Medinilla (FDM) is the Pacific fleet’s only U.S.-controlled live-fire range in the western Pacific Ocean.

The U.S. military has leased the range, located on the uninhabited 200-acre island, since 1976, with the agreement set to expire in 2075, according to GlobalSecurity.Org, a Web site devoted to military analysis.

The government that U.S. officials are negotiating with to expand the range is not actually Guam’s, but the Pacific Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, whose people are considered American citizens.

Farallon de Medinilla was the subject of a legal struggle between the Navy and environmentalists who were concerned about the island’s status as home to several species of migratory seabirds, including two endangered species.

Earthjustice (formerly known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) filed a lawsuit with the Washington, D.C., District Court in December 2000 that said the Navy must comply with the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The act prohibits harm to migratory species without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which the Navy applied for in 1996 but was refused.

The Navy’s position is that the treaty should not apply to federal agencies.

The Navy lost the case, but before the court issued an injunction to stop training on the island, Congress granted the Navy legislative relief as part of the fiscal 2003 Defense Authorization Act.

As a result of that action, the case was dismissed by the court, according to Air Force Maj. Michael Shavers, a DOD spokesman.

In addition to FDM, DOD officials are also working on a cooperative agreement with Australia to use some of that country’s military exercise areas, Hester said.

“We have interest and discussions, not complete yet [to work with Australia] for the collective use of their ranges, which include water ranges and land ranges in their northern territories,” Hester said.

However, there is no intention to station U.S. personnel permanently at those facilities, Hester said.

“There has been some misstatements and misunderstandings that we’re looking for a permanent structure [in Australia] where we would take people and permanently place them down there,” Hester said.

“That’s simply not true.”


Copyright 2005, Stars and Stripes