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Interior official discusses relationship with NMI

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UNITED States Assistant Interior Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Douglas Domenech made a special appearance during the governor’s press briefing on KKMP radio  Friday to discuss the relationship between the CNMI and DOI-Office of Insular Affairs.

Formerly the Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Domenech was nominated to his present role by President Donald Trump and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2017.

He also served during the George W. Bush administration as White House liaison and deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretaries Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne.

Domenech also currently serves on the Advisory Council of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.

In addition, he is co-chair of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force and serves on the White House Ocean Policy Committee.

The assistant secretary and the Office of Insular Affairs implement the responsibilities of Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to the U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, the CNMI, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

 

U.S. Assistant Interior Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Douglas Domenech poses for a “selfie” with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres. Contributed photo

 

 They are also responsible for administering and overseeing federal assistance provided under the Compacts of Free Association to the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.

Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the OIA has remained fully operational and has resorted to teleworking from home as it gradually reopens its offices under guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Assistant Secretary Domenech expressed his condolences to the two Covid-19 fatalities in the CNMI, the first was a 70-year-old man in March and the second was a 77-year-old female in April.

He said he and his team keep tabs on Covid-19 cases and fatalities in the seven insular areas, noting that American Samoa, the FSM, the Marshall Islands, and Palau are the only insular areas with no reported cases or fatalities.

As of Friday, there were about 3,600 reported Covid-19 cases and 59 fatalities in Guam, the CNMI, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Funding

“We’re trying very hard to get funding out…. The President activated [over] 40 agencies and Congress passed funding, so those agencies are providing the funding to the different islands,” he said.

The OIA received roughly $55 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funding, he said, noting that these funds have been allocated to the insular areas, including the CNMI.

Regarding current projects coming down the pipeline, the assistant secretary said that the OIA is just at the tail-end of giving out its grant money as the end of the fiscal year soon approaches.

In about two months, he said, the office will start requesting applications for the next round of funding.

“We try to pretty much divide that money up between the islands. It’s not always completely equal, but it depends on what the needs are,” he said, noting that there is funding currently in the works, such as funding for matters pertaining to invasive species.

As for the emergency relief funding provided to the islands, he said that these funds are specifically allocated for preparing and dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.

He explained that when the OIA received its CARES Act funds, it asked each territory to come up with an expenditure plan for these pandemic funds.

Then the CNMI was given its portion of the funding and draws down funds based on how it wants to spend it, he added.

“Very early on, we gave a grant to the CNMI for the purchase of [personal protective equipment], the masks, gloves, ventilators for the hospital and frontline workers, so we gave some funding for that,” he said.

 “In general, that’s what we’ve been doing. We gave the CNMI a little over $4 million in that funding for that CARES Act funding, and we actually have more available if that’s needed.”

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, for his part, emphasized that the administration wants to spend the remainder of these funds “the right way.”

He said the CNMI government just submitted a request to the OIA for funding for a germ-free laboratory.

The assistant secretary noted that for FY 2019, the OIA received $638 million for all of the insular areas.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the U.S. Congress has yet to pass a budget, given that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed their version while the U.S. Senate has yet to pass theirs.

“We’re expecting here next week to get a continuing resolution which basically takes the funding from last year and gives it to us in pieces, so we’re waiting to see how much we’re going to get,” he said.

“The [FY 2021] budget was actually a little lower at $619 million of what we submitted, but again, we have to wait and see what Congress is going to do.”

Since 2017, the OIA has funded $81.4 million in grants for the CNMI, including $26.7 million just this year alone.

Relationships

“We work very closely with the government — in particular, the governor — of the CNMI in looking at your priorities, the best way to spend that money, and I know that no one wants to talk about money, but we like to think that the most valuable thing we have are relationships with people,” he said.

Assistant Secretary Domenech said that he has visited the CNMI before, including the island of Pagan, and noted that he is particularly fond of the island of Rota.

He said that the OIA has a lot of staff members who are from the islands —  including Harry Blanco and Francisco Taitano from the CNMI — and are “the best advocates to [the OIA] of what the priorities ought to be.”

“The relationships that we build when we used to travel there, they’re the most meaningful part of this job and trying to help each other out as a family is very important… It’s a two-way street,” he added.

Governor Torres, for his part, also emphasized the importance of the relationship between the OIA and the CNMI, and thanked the assistant secretary for his approval of funding for and his commitment to the Commonwealth.

“That is where the trust comes in. That is where it’s easier to address issues, concerns, and still understand the priorities that we have here in the Commonwealth as well as [the] fiduciary duty [of the Assistant Secretary], and we see that across [the board], especially with this administration,” he said, noting the effective response that the CNMI has received from the federal government in light of a disaster.

Regarding the most challenging aspect of the relationship between the OIA and insular areas such as the CNMI, the assistant secretary said, “We feel like we never have enough funding for the needs, and figuring out what’s the best way to take the small amount of funding we have and get it in the field to help the most people.”

“Our staff works very hard to figure out, really, what’s the best thing. We focus mostly on health and education,” he said, citing solar panels for schools as an example.

Environment

Assistant Secretary Domenech also touched on environmental matters, including energy, the National Park Service Rota Special Resource Study, climate change, and the environmental impacts of an increase in destructive military presence.

He said the investment in energy, such as solar panels on top of schools, are primarily to lower utility costs.

The assistant secretary said the OIA works with the NPS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey in all of the islands.

In a recent OIA press release, he commended the study to consider sites on Rota for possible inclusion in the U.S. NPS System.

However, during the press briefing, he said that although the NPS does preserve things very well, the NPS had not always managed American Memorial Park very well.

“I appreciate the fact that they recognize how historic and special Rota was. That’s really what I’m trying to endorse,” he said, adding that he will speak with the NPS on the strong opposition of Rota residents to parts of Rota being included in the U.S. NPS System.

The opposition was due to issues pertaining to land ownership, deer hunting, and obtaining local medicinal plants.

Governor Torres, for his part, asked that in these discussions on national monuments with the NPS, the assistant secretary ask if it would be possible to have certain exceptions to address these concerns of Rota residents.

Regarding climate change, he said, “Climate is a very serious matter and the U.S. government takes it very seriously,” noting that in the past year, the U.S. reduced its CO2 emissions the most compared to other countries.

Regarding an increase in destructive military presence, Assistant Secretary Domenech said, “I, of course, commend the members of the military who volunteer to keep us safe and free, and I support them completely.”

“They have training needs and I think they try pretty hard,” he said, noting that one of his last trips to the CNMI was with the main deputy assistant secretary who handles the military environmental program.

 Regarding historic preservation training in the military, the assistant secretary said that he thinks that the military is “trying very hard to be sensitive to those matters.”

“They do need to be able to train…. I’ve been to Pagan, and again, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to, so I recognize that these are very difficult decisions,” he said.

 

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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