An erupting volcano forced Pagan's residents to leave, but turning the island into a destination for military exercises will keep them away for much longer, even as it boosts the economies of nearby islands.
The remote island of Pagan in the western Pacific is home to volcanoes, endangered species and the remnants of an ancient civilization.
For biologists, the island about 330 miles north of Guam is the perfect place for ecological research.
But for the U.S. military, Pagan could be the solution to a search for new training grounds to practice shelling, dropping bombs and other large-scale exercises.
The proposal, which is still in the early stages, is part of the U.S. military’s broader effort to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region. Pagan is one of 14 islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory that is just a few hours by plane from China, Russia and Korea.
Maj. Neal Fisher says the process is just getting started and the military has been seeking input from all stakeholders. He says the military is committed to being a good neighbor and a good steward of the environment.
But the proposal has already been criticized by some who worry about how the project could hurt the island’s natural and archaeological resources.
The commonwealth’s Gov. Eloy Inos says the proposal could harm the island’s wildlife, damage historical sites, curb fishing and tourism and displace the handful of people living on the island.
Inos says the military should conduct additional studies to address the issues. But some residents say there would be no way to mitigate the damage.
“It would be total destruction,” said William Torres, a former lawmaker in the Northern Marianas who has been active in raising awareness about the proposal.
Torres says that in the past, he has supported developing a military presence on Pagan. But he says the current plan for continuous live-fire training across the entire island crosses the line.
Torres is worried the island could turn into another Kahoolawe. The Hawaiian island served as military training grounds for decades and is now littered with unexploded ordinances.
Fisher says such concerns don’t take into account the Marine Corp.’s disciplined training exercises and its commitment to leaving places better than they were found.
“It’s very focused, very detailed firing,” he said. “It won’t be willy nilly all over the island.”
Fisher says the proposal could also boost the economies of neighboring islands such as Saipan and Guam.
Pagan residents who were evacuated following a 1981 volcanic eruption are also worried the plan could prevent resettlement.
Jerome Aldan left Pagan when he was 8 years old. He has been urging the local government to move forward with a plan to help former residents like him move back to the island and he is worried the military training exercises could leave it uninhabitable.
Fisher says the military is in the process of drafting an environmental impact statement to analyze the potential effects of the plan, which would also affect parts of the neighboring island of Tinian.
Because the proposal is in its initial stages, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation don’t have official positions on the issue. They say they plan to keep watch on the plan as it develops.
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Photo credit: A steam plume flows blows south from the peak of Pagan Island’s northernmost volcano in this photograph by an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS). NASA Earth Observatory / Flickr