Military operations on Guam spur endangered species challenge
Camp Blaz is being outfitted to host thousands of U.S. Marines, a plan said to threaten more than a dozen species with extinction.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, July 18, 2023
(CN) — Two environmental groups sued three arms of the U.S. government on Tuesday over damages that they say has been wrought by the construction of a Marine Corps Base in one of Guam’s most ecologically diverse regions.
Represented by in-house counsel and by local counsel in Hagåtña, Guam, the Center for Biological Diversity brought the 104-page lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Guam with an indigenous activist group called Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian.
Litekyan means “stirring place” in the Chamoru language, according to the nonprofit's website, and the area otherwise known as Ritidian has been inhabited by the Chamoru people for centuries with little interference from outsiders before now.
Outside activity in the region ramped up, according to the complaint, after a 2005 agreement to reduce U.S. military presence in Okinawa, Japan, required the relocation of some 5,000 Marines.
To house these service members and another 1,300 of their dependents, the Navy began put together plans for a nearly 4,000-acre military base in Guam.
Camp Blaz opened in northeastern Guam in January 2023, but the plaintiffs say the government failed to uphold its duties under the Endangered Species Act and other federal law while .
“The U.S. military has a long history of taking our land and destroying our native species,” Monaeka Flores with Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian said in a statement. “If the U.S. government and military are serious about environmental protection and addressing climate change, they need to start by addressing the devastating environmental effects of their own activities.”
Hundreds of acres of Guam’s native limestone forests have been eradicated to make room for the base, according to the complaint. Conservationists say the human activity has also compounded the risk to several endangered and threatened species — many of which are unique to Guam or the Micronesian archipelago — including the Mariana fruit bat (fanihi), the Mariana eight spot butterfly (ababang), and several bird and tree species.
“It would be impossible for me to overstate the devastating harm from the U.S. military to Guam’s native forests, wildlife and people,” Maxx Phillips, Pacific Islands director and staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “There are literally no birds singing in Guam’s forests anymore after 10 species went extinct. We’re going to court because even more of Guam’s precious and irreplaceable trees, birds and bats are sure to be lost if the Navy keeps ignoring its commitments.”
Pointing to aspects of cultural and archeological significance as well, the plaintiffs claim that the Marine base is threatening the study of several ancient Chamoru structures and cave art.
To offset the expected damage from their plans for Camp Blaz, U.S. officials purportedly made a series of conservation pledges.
The complaint meanwhile notes that even “landscape-level” controls have yet to begin for problems like the brown tree snake — an invasive species that has hunted the Guam kingfisher (sihek), Mariana crow (åga) and Guam rail (ko’ko) to the point where they can no longer be found on the island.
Although plaintiffs take issue with the entirety of the base, they draw particular attention to its live-fire Training Range Complex, which they say has been built directly on key recovery habitats for a range of endangered species. Notably, the gun range lies just 100 feet away from the very last mature håyun lågu tree, known as the “Mother Tree,” on Guam.
Construction work that cleared the forest has left the tree exposed not only to range activity but to the elements. The plaintiffs say the fate of the tree is uncertain after it was severely damaged recently by Typhoon Mawar.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted several biological opinions over the years to determine the scale of damage the base could cause, as well as potential mitigation methods.
Calling this work into question, however, the center and Prutehi Litekyan say “the service relied on these Conservation Measures even though they are uncertain, non-specific, unenforceable, and unlikely to be effective or adequate.”
“Unfortunately, it has become clear that without such relief from this court, the Navy will continue to carry out its military activities — including construction and operation of a base that has destroyed and degraded thousands of acres including some of the only remaining native limestone forests on the island, and conducting live fire training and increased aircraft overflights almost daily— while disregarding the very measures it promised to implement after the Service found them necessary to ensure these species’ continued existence,” the complaint states.
In addition to alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedure Act, the center and Prutehi Litekyan claim that the government has denied them access, dating back two years, to documents regarding these issues in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
Representatives for the Navy, the Defense Department, and Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.