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Army general wants Makua as option

By Audrey McAvoy

LAST UPDATED: 9:06 a.m. HST, Jun 18, 2011

The top U.S. Army commander in the Pacific wants to be sure Hawaii-based soldiers have alternate locations for live-fire training before he’ll write off using Makua — a valley many Native Hawaiians consider sacred — for that purpose. 

In his first interview since taking command of U.S. Army Pacific, Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski told The Associated Press that he won’t send soldiers to Makua Valley to train with live ammunition so long as the Army finishes building training ranges in central Oahu and the Big Island on time.

But Wiercinski said he would need to keep his options open on Makua in case the construction of new ranges at Schofield Barracks and Pohakuloa Training Area is delayed.

“If we are successful in completing the live-fire areas on Schofield, if we are successful in completing all of the live-fire areas on PTA that we need,” Wiercinski said, he’ll not be forced to open up live-fire training on Makua. “But if we don’t get that, then I’m forced to look at other ways to get live-fire throughput for all of our units here in Hawaii.” 

The people of Waianae in the northwestern corner of Oahu believe the first Hawaiians were created in Makua, making the valley about 30 miles from downtown Honolulu sacred in the eyes of many Native Hawaiians. The large, lush valley is also home to three large heiau, or ancient stone platforms used for worship. 

The Army has trained in Makua since the 1920s, and took over the area entirely during World War II. But Native Hawaiian and environmental groups have charged in recent years that soldiers were destroying ancient cultural sites and endangered plants. 

Army leaders have countered that the valley is critical to readiness because it’s the only place in Hawaii where an entire company of soldiers — about 150 people — is able to train together with live ammunition. There are 22,500 soldiers stationed in Hawaii.

No branch of the military has trained in Makua with live ammunition since 2004, however, and the Army and its opponents have been embroiled in a decade-long legal dispute over how the military may use the valley. The Army has been shipping soldiers out of state for the training instead, a solution commanders don’t like because it separates soldiers from their families even when they’re back home between combat deployments.

Wiercinski spoke nearly three months after he succeeded Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon as the commander of Army troops based in Hawaii, Alaska, Guam and Japan. Mixon retired in March, just two months after he suspended Army plans to use live-fire training at Makua in response to community concerns.

Mixon cautioned at the time that the Army might have to return to Makua for live-fire training in an emergency. But he said the suspension would allow the Army to balance community relations and service training requirements. 

Wiercinski said he didn’t want to use Makua for live-fire training, and that was why he wanted to get the Schofield and Pohakuloa projects finished.

“We have to stay on track. I can’t allow us to fall behind and not have the capability to get our soldiers trained,” Wiercinski said. 

The Army says it’s due to finish building in Sept. 2012 a battle area complex at Pohakuloa Training Area where a company would be able to use live ammunition.  It’s scheduled to finish a similar complex at Schofield in Dec. 2012.

The three-star general said he was confident the Army could both train its soldiers and protect cultural sites and the environment. 

“We’re going to be very respectful of culture. We’re going to be very respectful of the environment. In fact, I don’t think anybody does it better than us when it comes to protecting the environment and being cognizant and protective of culture sites,” he said. “But in the end I also have to be protective of our greatest resource — our sons and daughters. And you know what? We’re good enough. We can do all three of those things.”

But David Henkin, an Earthjustice lawyer representing a Waianae coast group that’s been fighting the Army in court, said he doubts the military would be able to resume live-fire training at Makua until the Army’s environmental impact statement is ruled to be satisfactory. 

The Army agreed to do the study as part of a legal settlement with Hui Malama O Makua, which sued in 1998 after hundreds of training related fires were set in the 1990s. 

But while the Army submitted its environmental study in 2009, Hui Malama O Makua said it failed to adequately assess archaeological sites and evaluate how live-fire training would affect seaweed, octopus and other marine life in the ocean off Makua that people harvest for food. 

On Tuesday, the two sides are due to appear before U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway to argue whether the Army adequately studied marine life off Makua.

“It’s time for the Army to live up to its commitments and get the environmental review done. Between now and then we don’t think there’s any reasonable prospect of live-fire training at Makua,” Henkin said.

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