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Maui County, Army Corps join effort to restore historic islet

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Restoration of Mokuula Island and Mokuhinia Pond on Maui, home of the first three Kamehameha kings, has been proposed, creating a project some regard as significant as the restoration of Iolani Palace.

The nonprofit group Friends of Moku’ula has established a partnership with Maui County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore the wetland area that, according to legend, was guarded by the lizard goddess Kihawahine.

"The restoration is at the same sort of level as Iolani Palace, because the kings resided at Mokuula. This was our former capital," said Shirley Kaha’i, acting executive director of Friends of Moku’ula. "It was a very sacred place."

Army Corps project manager Athline Clark said the Honolulu office plans to provide the planning and technical assistance throughout the entire restoration and consult regularly with the county and Friends of Moku’ula.

Clark said the corps is planning to analyze the surface soil at the site, which is a ball field, before deciding on the method of removing earth to begin to restore the pond, estimated to be about six feet from the surface.

A preliminary test indicated there were higher than normal traces of arsenic in the soil, and the corps is conducting further tests.

"We’re making sure it’s not significant," she said.

Clark said the corps will eventually be conducting hydrology tests and working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the intent of bringing back the wetlands and native bird habitat.

She said early 1900s maps, sketching the location of the wetlands before they were filled by sugar firm Pioneer Mill Co., showed the pond was large. The area became the county Malu-ulu-o-lele Park in the early 1900s.

"There was a significant amount of wetlands, even more than Waikiki," Clark said. "The maps are pretty astounding as to what was there."

The islet was once occupied by Maui royalty and later by Big Island-born King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands under one kingdom.

In the early 1800s, Lahaina served as the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom.

Moku’ula and Mokuhinia had a political and spiritual connection, making it one of the most sacred places in Hawaii, cultural experts say.

Clark said the original pond, extending makai of Front Street, was larger than the park.

Bishop Museum has conducted studies of the site confirming the location of the Mokuula islet.

Friends of Moku’ula began the project in 1990 and developed support for it by conducting fundraisers and educational tours of Lahaina.

In the early 2000s, Maui Mayor James "Kimo" Apana announced his support for the project and opposed the development of a shopping center that extended into part of the pond.

Mayor Charmaine Tavares has been involved in supporting the project since she was the county park director and stopped park activities to allow archaeological digs.

County spokeswoman Mahina Martin, former program director for Friends of Moku’ula, said the Army Corps’ participation in the project, which began to evolve last year, represents a "pivotal point" in the restoration.

"It underscores the county’s commitment to restore the area," Martin said.


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