Matt Sedensky / Associated Press – 2004-04-24 10:06:50
KAHOOLAWE ISLAND, Hawaii (April 13, 2004) — When Emmett Aluli first set foot here nearly three decades ago, the barren land was so littered with the remnants of years of military test bombings that he shed tears for an island he considers sacred.
On Friday, the Navy hauled off its last barge full of equipment and debris after an unprecedented 10-year, $460 million cleanup. And though significant amounts of ordnance remain, Aluli and others now see Kahoolawe as a place of hope.
“Environmentally and visually, it was the worst thing we could ever see on an island, on our land,” said Aluli, a Molokai physician and member of the state-run Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. “We’ve tried our best to get the complete cleanup. We understand the shortfalls. We’re just looking at the future.”
The uninhabited patch of red dirt rising from the Pacific is sacred to native Hawaiians who feel the island, untouched by tourists, connects them with the spirits of their ancestors.
For nearly five decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the land was ravaged by bombs from US planes and warships. But after years of protests and lawsuits, President George H.W. Bush ordered a halt to the exercises in 1990.
Today, Hawaii’s wet winter is evident in the swaths of green across Kahoolawe’s typically barren plains and hills. For Davianna McGregor, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawaii and a member of the grass-roots Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, it’s a sign of hope. “You feel like the island is finally at rest and can begin healing,” she said.
Anthropologists say the wind-swept island of Kahoolawe (pronounced ka-HO’oh LA-vay) was first settled and established into small fishing communities around 1000 A.D. Its lack of fresh water always posed a problem and led to a decline in its inhabitants.
Kahoolawe’s Dark History
King Kamehameha III made Kahoolawe ˜ at 45 square miles (115 square kilometers) , the smallest of the Hawaiian archipelago’s eight major islands ˜ a prison colony for about two decades beginning around 1830.
Prisoners moved out, goats and sheep moved in, and it didn’t take long after ranching began in 1858 for overgrazing to leave the landscape barren.
Then came Pearl Harbor, the declaration of martial law in Hawaii, and the military’s takeover of Kahoolawe as a training range. Soldiers got real-life training here that military officials say saved American lives in World War II and beyond.
But the use of the land offended many native Hawaiians, who regularly hold religious ceremonies on the island, chanting and praying that ancestors grant forgiveness for allowing the land to be disrespected. It was returned to local control last November.
A Massive 22,000-acre Cleanup
The massive cleanup — on a land area far greater than the high-profile bombing site of Vieques in Puerto Rico — was limited by funding, technology, and time. Still, more than 100,000 ordnance items were collected and destroyed, contributing to a tally of 12.9 million pounds (5.8 million kilograms) of scrap metal.
Some 22,114 acres (8,845 hectares) of Kahoolawe’s surface have been cleared of ordnance: about 84.5 percent, according to the Navy, which does not count 2,600 acres it deems completely inaccessible. Only 2,650 acres (1,060 hectares) ˜ 9 or 10 percent, depending who’s counting ˜ has been cleared to four feet below ground, a level where native plants can possibly be grown as a first step in ending erosion.
Work remains to be done on the island, said Stanton Enomoto, the acting executive director of Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. “That’s always going to be a reminder to us,” he said. “There’s still an obligation on the part of the United States that they have to finish the job.”
Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, said he understood the concerns of some who felt more could have been done, but insisted “the Navy did what it was chartered to do.”
Targets of Opportunity Return to Islands of Beauty
A similar cleanup will turn the island of Vieques into a wildlife refuge following the Navy’s withdrawal from the training base last year. Tensions rose there in 1999 when two errant bombs killed a civilian guard, and a surge of protests followed.
For all the desolation of Kahoolawe, it’s also a place of beauty. There are stretches of white sand beaches, high cliffs plunging to sapphire waters, and fields of spindly tamarisk, spurts of ilima flowers and kiawe trees.
It’s unlikely the island and its waters will ever ˜ or at least not soon ˜ be freed of the reminders of the bombings that scarred the land. But some say the remaining ordnance may actually be a blessing.
“It provides an ironic sense of protection from the kind of commercial development that has happened on the other islands,” said McGregor. “It’s never going to be safe for hotel development or golf course development or other commercial uses that have ruined very sacred spaces on the other islands.”
All manner of suggestions have surfaced on how the land should be used, from a homeland for Palestinians to a massive casino in a state that bars all gambling but whose people favor Las Vegas vacations.
For now, though, access will be limited. Small groups will visit for cultural and educational purposes, but widespread use will likely be restricted until the fragile environment is restored. Ultimately, control is to be transferred to a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.
Aluli said the wrongs done to Kahoolawe are no longer the focus. “The main thing is the island is at peace again.”
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