December 17th, 2009




December 17, 2009

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources I am pleased to appear before you today on behalf of the Department of the Interior to support enactment of legislation that would convey the three geographical miles of submerged lands adjacent to the Northern Mariana Islands to the Government of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Administration would strongly support this bill if amended to address the issues outlined below

The bill is intended to give the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) authority over its submerged lands from mean high tide seaward to three geographical miles distant from its coast lines. 

It has been the position of the Federal Government that United States submerged lands around the Northern Mariana Islands did not transfer to the CNMI when the Covenant came into force.  This position was validated in Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in the case of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands v. the United States of America.  One consequence of this decision is that CNMI law enforcement personnel lack jurisdiction in the territorial waters surrounding the islands of the CNMI without a grant from the Federal Government.

At present, the CNMI is the only United States territory that does not have title to the submerged lands in that portion of the United States territorial sea that is three miles distant from the coastlines of the CNMI's islands.  It is appropriate that the CNMI be given the same authority as her sister territories.

I have three comments on the bill, and then a recommendation.  First, the Territorial Submerged Lands Act, which became public law in 1974, contains several sections that refer to the territories by name.  H.R. 934 inserts the CNMI's name only in section 1, but not in section 2, which reserves military rights and navigational servitudes.  In order to achieve consistency, the Department recommends that the CNMI be included in all provisions of the Territorial Submerged Lands Act where other territories are named.

Second, H.R. 934 includes language interpreting "date of enactment" in the original act as meaning "date of enactment" of H.R. 934 when referencing the provisions of H.R. 934.  For those who will later interpret the statute, it would be helpful if the interpretation is included in the main statute itself, rather than being relegated to a separately listed amendment or reference note.

Third, on January 6, 2009, by presidential proclamation, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument was created, including the Islands Unit, comprising the submerged lands and waters surrounding Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion, the northernmost islands of the CNMI.  While creation of the monument is a historic achievement, it should be remembered that the leaders and people of the CNMI were and are these three islands' first preservationists.  They included in their 1978, plebiscite-approved constitution the following language:


Section 1: Marine Resources.  The marine resources in the waters off the coast of the Commonwealth over which the Commonwealth now or hereafter may have any jurisdiction under United States law shall be managed, controlled, protected and preserved by the legislature for the benefit of the people.

Section 2: Uninhabited Islands. . . .  The islands of Maug, Uracas, Asuncion, Guguan and other islands specified by law shall be maintained as uninhabited places and used only for the preservation and protection of natural resources, including but not limited to bird, wildlife and plant species.

It is important to note that the legislature has never taken action adverse to the preservation of these northern islands and the waters surrounding them.  The people of the CNMI are well aware of their treasures.  CNMI leaders consented to creation of the monument because they believed that the monument would bring Federal assets for marine surveillance, protection, and enforcement to the northern islands that the CNMI cannot afford.

 If enacted as passed by the House, H.R. 934 would become a public law enacted subsequent to the creation of the monument.  H.R. 934's amendments to the Territorial Submerged Lands Act would convey to the CNMI the submerged lands surrounding Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion without addressing the effect of this conveyance on the administrative responsibilities of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce.  Presidential Proclamation 8335 establishes shared management responsibilities for the Marianas Marine National Monument between the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce.  The proclamation further states that the "Secretary of Commerce shall have the primary management responsibility…with respect to fishery-related activities regulated pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 1801 et seq.) and any other applicable authorities."  The proclamation provides that submerged lands that are granted to the CNMI "but remain controlled by the United States under the Antiquities Act may remain part of the monument" for coordinated management with the CNMI.  The Department of the Interior seeks to harmonize all interests in the waters surrounding the CNMI's three northernmost islands and provide sufficient control over the submerged lands and waters of the monument to enable co-management of the Islands Unit of the monument. Thus, the Department recommends that language be included in H.R. 934 referencing the proclamation that created the monument, including the Federal and CNMI roles.  Such harmonizing language is intended to protect the Islands Unit of the monument and at the same time acknowledge the prescient and historic conservation effort of the leaders and people of the CNMI in protecting Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion, and their surrounding waters.

I have appended to my written statement legislative language that would (1) address the submerged lands surrounding the Northern Mariana Islands to the Government of the Northern Mariana Islands, and (2) clearly address the three issues of concern to the Department that I raised here today.  The Department of the Interior strongly supports H.R. 934 if it is amended to include the legislative language provided.  The Department of the Interior looks forward to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands gaining rights in the submerged lands surrounding them similar to those accorded her sister territories.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that Public Law 93-435 (48 U.S.C. 1705) is amended:

  1. by inserting the words 'the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,' after the word 'Guam,' wherever it appears, and
  2. by adding at the end the following language:

'Sec. 7.  All provisions of this Act that refer to "date of enactment", shall, when applicable to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, mean the date of enactment of the amendment that included the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in this Act.

'Sec. 8.  Nothing in this Act is intended to amend, repeal, or otherwise alter the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument as described in Presidential Proclamation 8335 dated January 6, 2009, including the proclamation's provisions that reference the management responsibilities of the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce and the rights, responsibilities of officials of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.'

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