President signs NMI submerged lands bill into law

Sep 18, 2013

President Obama has signed into law S. 256, conveying to the Government of the Northern Mariana Islands the submerged lands surrounding the islands extending three geographical miles outward from the coastline and rescheduling minimum wage increases.  The bill becomes one of only 36 that have become law during the President’s second term of office.  By this time in his first term Congress had passed 181 bills that received the Presidential signature.

Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, who represents the Northern Mariana Islands, expressed his gratitude to the President:

I am very grateful to President Obama for signing S. 256 into law.  Legislation conveying submerged lands was the very first bill I introduced, as the Northern Mariana Islands first representative in Congress, in February 2009.  Now, after unanimous votes approving the submerged lands conveyance in the House of Representatives in 2009, 2011, and 2013, and a final unanimous consent agreement in the Senate earlier this year, the bill has finally become law.

The people of the Northern Mariana Islands have always believed that the lands and waters surrounding our islands, which for millennia our ancestors used and preserved, belonged to us.  A federal court ruling in 2005 said otherwise, requiring that the lands be conveyed by Congress.  Now that S. 256 has become law, the lands can become ours again.

I want also to say thank you, again, to Senators Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski, who introduced S. 256 in this Congress at my request.  Originating the bill in the Senate with bipartisan sponsorship, certainly helped to win Senate passage, which had always been the stumbling block for the bill.  I also appreciate the cooperation of House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings and his Democratic counterpart Ranking Member Peter DeFazio for helping find time this month on a very crowded legislative schedule to win the fourth and final unanimous vote in the House that sent the bill to the President for his action.

Northern Mariana Islands Representative Anthony T. Benavente (IR-Precinct 3), who is in Washington this week for a series of meetings with federal officials, congratulated Sablan on the legislative success.  “The return of these lands to CNMI ownership is truly an accomplishment,” Benavente said.  “I am very glad that I could be here with Congressman Sablan when he received the news from the White House.”  Benavente chairs the Standing Committee on Natural Resources, which will have responsibility for many of the decisions about the use and protection of the seabed that S. 256 allows to be now handed over to the island government.

In addition to the conveyance of the Northern Mariana Islands offshore lands, S. 256 also defers increases in the minimum wage in the Northern Marianas.  The minimum wage is now scheduled to reach the federal level in 2018.

Along with S. 256, the President signed into law today S. 130, conveying land to the Powell Recreation District in Wyoming; S. 157, authorizing certain energy projects in Alaska’s Denali National Park; S. 304, conveying 67 acres of Federal land to the State of Mississippi; and S. 459, modifying the boundary of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.