Perez: military environmental protection stems from their destruction
It's the last of its kind on Guam - an adult Fire Tree - smack dab in the middle of what will eventually become a rifle range for the military buildup. While the military is claiming it is protecting this tree, others say that doesn't add up.
You may have seen it on the governor's Instagram account - a critically endangered Serianthes Nelsonii - or Tronkon Guafi - the last adult tree of its kind on Guam.
In the Maga'haga's IG post, the governor thanks the military for its efforts to "preserve and propagate" the tree - and that rubbed some in environmental direct action group Prutehi Litekyan the wrong way.
Comments are calling the post "fake news" another comment "thank them? They're the ones endangering it" and even Navy PIO Lt. Ian McConnaughey did it for the 'Gram', commenting that the military is the one protecting the tree, not endangering it. Joint Region Marianas tells KUAM News McConnaughey's comment's "do not reflect the position views or endorsement of Joint region Marianas or DOD."
Legislative Environment Chair Sen. Sabina Perez and Land chair Sen. Therese Terlaje were on the trip along with the governor. Before joining the 35th Guam Legislature, Perez was a member of Prutehi Litekyan. During the visit, she wore a black shirt displaying her roots. She's in no hurry to thank the military for "taking care" of the last mature Serianthes tree.
"Their environmental protection is actually stemming from a destruction of an area that's really sacred to us," Perez said.
The last fire tree lives in the Tai Lalu area. What will be the largest firing range in the impending buildup sits in a diverse and unique ecosystem that is literally under the gun as the construction of the range is now in full swing.
Ecologist Else Demeulenaere, the associate director of the center for island sustainability is part of an effort to study and save the tree, and other critical plant and animal species.
"To protect a tree or endangered species you have to protect the habitat and that largest of the ranges is its habitat," she said.
There are a few saplings fenced in with the fire tree, but Demeulenaere says the more space the tree has, the more seeds and saplings will be protected. She says the military's plan to create a 100-foot buffer around the tree is not good enough to ensure its survival.
She says historic documents show the cultural significance of the tree - which was used as lumber by ancient CHamorus. And like our ancestors, this limestone forest will soon be a memory.
"The forest where it grows now is really high-quality forest - a type of forest you don't really find much in Guam anymore," Demeulenaere said.
The recent discovery of more sites with artifacts, the high probability that more ancient sites will be unearthed and the endangered and critical species in the area are all reasons the military should go back to the drawing board, Perez said.
"The largest of the ranges needs to be relocated," she said.
"It's that big one that compromises some of the very high-quality forest," Demaulenaere said.
Joint Region - in a written statement - tells KUAM News the tree was damaged in a typhoon and is now heavily infected with a fungus that leaves it - in the military's words - "structurally compromised" and likely it "will not survive future extreme weather" and Demeulenaere says since the area around the fire tree has been cleared, the Tronkon Guafi has little protection from damaging winds.
"It's the last tree from Guam every seed you can still get and outplant, that's like a win," she said.
In the meantime, efforts to plant fire tree saplings in what the military calls "forest enhancement areas" and around the island - including the Tarzan Falls area - continue as part of an agreement between the Department of Defense the UOG's plant extinction prevention program.
Joint Region said it collected 205 seeds and 41 saplings will become part of a long term goal to plant 160 saplings in the next two years.
Demeulenaere is currently doing a study on the Tronkon Guafi's genetic makeup and the results of that study could mean the military may have to restart the biological profile of the area - which could mean more stringent protections for the last fire tree.
"If that tree is distinct, then the risk of extinction is even greater," Perez said.