A small speck tacked onto a chain of fifteen islands in the Pacific Ocean, Pagan Island boasts two active volcanoes, an assortment of unique wildlife and almost no human residents. It's also facing one of two very different futures: on one hand, it could continue to exist as a unique ecological haven; on the other, it could be bombed into oblivion by the US military.

Pagan Island 2015 06 08
Image courtesy of savepaganisland.org

The tiny island is part of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain that is commonwealth territory of the United States. Now, in response to rising tensions between China and America in the Pacific, the US Marine Corps is planning to lease this biodiverse 18-square-mile island for live-fire training exercises, bombing runs and war games practice.

The island's long beaches are apparently the ideal location for the simulation of large-scale amphibious (sea-to-land) manoeuvres, meaning that at some point in the not-too-distant future, over 2,000 marines and their craft, including drones, helicopters, fighter jets and B-52 bombers, could descend on the island.

Pagan Island has been devoid of human inhabitants since the 1980s, when the volcanic Mount Pagan burst into destructive life and its lava flows slowly forced the evacuation of the island's residents over the course of four years. With the island deserted, a Japanese investor group moved to use it as a dumping ground for debris produced by the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, but thanks to protests in 2012, those plans were provisionally shelved. Now, with the US military planning to use Pagan as a training ground, calls are once again mounting for the island to be left to its endemic wildlife.

Marianas Fruit Bat 2015 06 08
The island is home to endangered animals such as the Marianas fruit bat (centre), unique lizard species and endemic birds. Images courtesy of savepaganisland.org

One vocal opponent of the military's plans is Michael Hadfield, a biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who's spent considerable time on the island documenting its unique ecosystems. At around a million years old, the Mariana islands have given rise to a range of indigenous wildlife, including the endangered Marianas fruit bat, rare tree snails – up to four named species – endemic birds, enormous spiders, lizards and coral reefs.

“Pagan Island is small and there are no parts of it that don’t have at least some good native forest on them,” says Hadfield. This diverse forest is most abundant in the ancient crater of Pagan's southern volcano. Since the military plans to occupy the entire island for live-fire training, Hadfield fears that much of these dense forests won't survive the exercises. “If you look carefully at their plan, you will note that firing areas include a band right across the middle of the island. Judging from what live fire has meant to other islands, we can expect the damaging hits to be far outside target areas,” he warns.

Michael Hadfield has spent time on the island tracking its rare species of tree snails. Image courtesy of savepaganisland.org

Hadfield also has serious doubts about the military's pledge to practice only on the more volcanic sites of the island in order to leave its biodiverse areas intact. “I am under no illusions that [this] will be effective at all. In many cases, they keep [military training islands] forever, gradually destroying everything of value."

Hadfield makes reference to Diego Garcia, an atoll with a massive US military base whose lagoon is now so polluted that its coral reefs have been destroyed. "Alternatively, the Navy takes an island, or part of one, and leaves it mostly uninhabitable due to unexploded [weapons] and destruction of the topography," he adds.

The planned live-fire exercises on Pagan will likely affect the habitats of its unique lizard species and native birds such as the collared kingfisher and the Micronesian starling. "The proposed military activities will most certainly jeopardize Pagan and cause ... an increased risk of fire during dry summers, erosion and consequent destruction of Pagan’s coral reefs, and would risk extinction of Pagan’s unique plants and animals," warns Hadfield.

Military officials recently bowed to pressure and ostensibly agreed to incorporate the public's concerns into an environmental impact statement. "We will collect ... public comments and will incorporate them into the final [assessment], which will be released in July next year,” the executive director of US Marine Corps Forces Pacific told the Saipan Tribune recently.

Along with Hadfield, former residents who are hoping to one day return to the island (which has a history of nearly two millennia of human occupation) are united in opposition – and they want the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Governor, Eloy Inos, to do everything in his power to prevent Pagan from becoming the military's firing range.

“There are so few places in the world today that are untouched,” says Angelo Villagomez, a former resident of nearby Saipan Island. Now working for an environmental non-profit organisation in Washington, he believes that if the military has to drop something on Pagan, it should be money for conservation and scientific funding – not bombs.

The campaign to save Pagan Island from military activities can be found at savepaganisland.org.