The Hawaiian Island of Kahoolawe
The quiet isle of Kahoolawe will be Hawaii's next frontier -- when (and if) the U.S. Navy finishes cleaning up five decades worth of bombs and ammunition. Frustrated by the delay, locals are getting restless
News cameras in recent months have been trained on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where protesters are trying to stop the U.S. military's target practice. In Hawaii, however, Navy bombers met their match a decade ago, when the last practice rounds were fired on the island of Kahoolawe. For nearly 50 years military gunners had mercilessly strafed its hillsides, cratering its meadows and decimating its plant life. Though the cannons are silent now, they've been replaced by the sounds of a different battle-this one entirely real. Hawaiian activists and environmentalists are decrying the slow pace of a cleanup campaign whose funding threatens to run out before the last unexploded bombs can be carted away.
Just seven miles off the coast of Maui, the 45-square-mile Kahoolawe ("kah-ho-o-lah-vay") is Hawaii's smallest major island. Yet it may someday be its most pristine new destination, once the Navy clears several thousand acres still littered with spent shells-and live bombs.
From a beach chair on Maui, Kahoolawe looks like any other Hawaiian island: a ruddy landscape of rising mounds sparsely dotted with green. Closer scrutiny reveals cleanup crews working long hours, backed against a deadline. The cleanup project is scheduled to end in 2003, but-unlike the gunners whose ordnance they are removing-the crews are going to miss the target.
In the 18th century, families here farmed taro and melons and fished the blue bays. They worshiped their gods at shrines called heiaus, now in jumbled ruins. Using stone adzes chiseled from one of the region's largest quarries, they scratched their stories onto rock slabs that date back to the 1400's. Traces of their culture remained intact for ages, hidden under long grasses grazed by cattle and feral goats.
At the beginning of World War II the U.S. Navy commandeered the island as a firing range for its Pearl Harbor-based Pacific fleet. By the 1970's, activists were petitioning the Navy to return the island to the Hawaiians. Despite protests, occupations, a lawsuit, and arrests, the shelling continued for a decade. The White House finally stopped it by executive order in 1990. Three years later, Congress gave back Hawaii's land.
But another problem remained: eliminating tons of live and exploded shells and bombs. Congress agreed to fund a 10-year Navy cleanup to rid the island of all surface ordnance. The money runs out in November 2003. As of today, less than one-tenth of the island has been cleared. And though the Navy's project director, James Putnam, insists that he's picking up the pace, he concedes that three years from now "we're going to be short." That is not what Hawaiian activists want to hear.
"The Navy needs to live up to its obligation," insists Dr. Emmett Aluli of Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, the group that organized the campaign to retake Kahoolawe. Aluli was one of the first to occupy the island in the seventies, an action that ended in his arrest. "They're not moving quickly enough."
Others are not so polite. "It's an insult," says Hawaii civil rights advocate Reverend Charles Maxwell. "The Navy is taking advantage of the Hawaiian people. Hawaiian culture has been swept aside." Maxwell says the Navy is wasting taxpayers' money. "They're spending millions each month, and that money isn't being used to clean up the island. It's being used to make other people rich."
By "other people," Maxwell means the mainland contractors hired by the Navy: Virginia's UXB International and Parsons Infrastructure & Technology Group of Pasadena, California. According to Maxwell, the Navy should have used local companies to keep more of the allocated $400 million in Hawaiian hands. "We're the ones who started this," he says. "Why shouldn't we be involved in the cleanup?"
Putnam dismisses such charges as "not informed." The Navy's contractors, he says, have actually saved the project money by, among other things, using helicopter transport instead of building a costly airstrip. With no infrastructure on the island, it took time and capital to build the basics, such as improved jeep trails and a saltwater pipeline for hosing down dusty roads during construction. The surveyors, archaeologists, brush cutters, surface sweepers, and bomb specialists work in waves on small areas, further slowing the pace. Putnam responded by increasing the project's workforce from 280 to 325.
Putnam acknowledges that it took the Navy "too long to get here." Even Keoni Fairbanks, whose Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) acts as a liaison between the Navy and Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, calls the Navy's approach "ill-conceived." He was disappointed that the Navy oversaw the cleanup-its first ever-instead of allowing a more experienced military branch, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, to create and manage the plan. "We're tremendously disappointed," he adds.
KIRC, entrusted with the island's future, has drafted extensive post-cleanup plans. Does this include tourism?Not as the rest of Hawaii knows it. Visitor access to Kahoolawe will continue to be limited, even after the danger of live ordnance is gone. The only way onto the island is by helicopter or by a boat ride that ends with passengers wading to shore, and there are no plans to change that. Furthermore, all commercial activity on Kahoolawe-including windsurfing and snorkel boats-has been banned. That's because to Hawaiians, Kahoolawe is first and foremost a wahi pana, or storied place, set aside to pursue such cultural practices as making ancestral offerings and restoring the land. Its vast archaeological trove has already earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ideally, small groups of visitors will be able to escape the manicured resorts on neighboring islands to hike Kahoolawe's rugged hills. They'll follow grassy coastal trails past gardens of native island species, some of which have already been replanted by volunteers. They might visit the remains of a century-old ranch in Kuheia. From empty beaches they'll watch for the return of rare seabirds, and glimpse monk seals and sea turtles swimming past offshore reefs. And no one will leave with an i hiked kahoolawe T-shirt.
That vision now seems a long way off. But Kim Birnie, who arranges visits to the island for school groups and others interested in Hawaiian culture, has turned philosophical about the pace of cleanup: "We didn't get the island back in two years or five years. Even if it takes twenty years, it's important that it be done right."
This Just In…