WASHINGTON — Del. Madeleine Bordallo’s proposal to allow the Navy to restrict access to the Guam National Wildlife Refuge so the Marine Corps could safely operate firing ranges exposed a rift within the Obama administration at a congressional hearing Tuesday.
The Interior Department opposed the so-called Guam Military Training and Readiness Act, saying the bill could jeopardize critical habitat for endangered species and hinder the government’s efforts to contain and manage the brown tree snake population.
Testifying minutes later, the Pentagon endorsed the measure, calling it an important step in ensuring the smooth transfer of 5,000 Marines and 1,300 dependents from Japan to Guam.
The legislation would authorize the Navy secretary to establish a “surface danger zone” — a safety buffer — over a portion of the refuge when the range complex is in use. The Navy would also have the power to close any part of the refuge for safety or national security reasons.
Bordallo said the Pentagon has informed Congress that the Navy needs the authority before the firing-range complex can be built. Construction isn’t scheduled to begin until at least 2017.
Bordallo has said the Marine buildup may be in jeopardy if the range isn’t built.
But giving the Navy the authority Bordallo wants the service to have could restrict or close public access for up to 39 weeks, Jim Kurth, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs.
The 24,000-acre refuge attracts 92,000 local residents and tourists a year and has Guam’s best public beach, he testified.
The Wildlife Refuge agency also could be prevented from doing its job. For instance, Kurth said, his employees may be unable to access fencing installed around 125 acres of native forests to protect indigenous species. Of special concern is a 385-acre portion of the Ritidian Unit inside the refuge that provides habitat for the endangered Guam rail, Mariana crow and Mariana fruit bat, Kurth said.
He said his agency is working with the military to find a solution.
“We don’t have any interest in holding up the Marine Corps,” Kurth said.
Joseph Ludovici, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, said building a complex with four firing ranges on a plateau overlooking Navy-owned land in the refuge is the military’s “preferred alternative.” Being forced to accept one of the four other locations could delay the transfer of personnel, he warned.
When the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., asked if the Marines would relocate somewhere other than Guam unless the firing ranges are built at the location the military prefers, Ludovici said, “No, it doesn’t mean that.”
“That means we lose our preferred alternative,” he added. “We don’t see any other reasonable alternatives on Guam.”
Bordallo said Guam residents must let Uncle Sam know which option they prefer. The government began accepting public comments earlier this month on possible locations.
“I have introduced this bill as a placeholder to keep our federal partners honest,” Bordallo said. “The bill does not intend to be the final answer on the location of the range. The public input is critical.”