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Unincorporated U.S. territories have many commonalities beyond history and politics

As island paradises, the unincorporated territories of the United States have many commonalities in several respects. Beyond history, politics, and perception, the very nature of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands has a remarkably similar story to tell. These insular areas have developed into unique, biodiverse, and dynamic ecosystems that, throughout their history, have faced many of the same dangers and challenges.

From tropical rainforests to coral reefs, the landscapes of the US territories are havens for species found nowhere else in the world. As such, they have been especially vulnerable to outside factors ever since each of the islands was colonized by Western powers. Now, the lasting consequences of colonization, along with the present dangers of development and the future threat of climate change, might be the greatest challenge in the context of conservation these territories face.

In reviewing the history and experience of every one of these places, however, one finds not only examples of lessons learned but stories of success and recovery, even from the brink of disaster. And in every single territory, the concerted effort to protect and conserve natural resources is seen by public and private entities alike. As challenges, old and new, jeopardize the treasures that have developed over millennia, hope and optimism are not unreasonable given the context of efforts to protect what makes these islands such beautiful places.

In American Samoa, today, the area with the greatest marine biodiversity in the US, for more than 3,000 years, the culture was “rooted in a respect for and reliance on the environment.” Under Fa`a-Samoa, or the cultural context that governs life in the islands, there is a great emphasis on the community and its welfare. Among its several aspects is the ancient concept of tapu. This concept regulated the activities of this oceanic culture that relied heavily on fishing (and still does to this day, although to a lesser degree). In order to protect resources, areas that were overstressed became off-limits for fishing activities, using seasons and lunar periods as guides.

For each of the five territories, there are dedicated initiatives to protect species, ranges, and nature itself. They take the form of government programs in Guam monitoring reefs, engaging in cultural outreach, and reintroducing species to their natural habitats. The situation is similar in the neighboring Northern Mariana Islands, where discussions, reports, and conferences are happening with the same objectives. Groups like Pacific Bird Conservation and the National Association of State Foresters are also present.

In American Samoa, there is a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary, along with plans to protect the fisheries that sustain so much of its economy and lifestyle. Nonprofit groups and even films are dedicated to efforts in arguably the most remote of the US territories, all focusing on learning from the past to step up efforts for the future.

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