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Healing the land

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    Quinten Lam was one of the many University of Hawaii volunteers last week who tore open bags filled with wood chips and mulch, preparing to put seed balls deep into them. The chips will help to prevent erosion of soil and the seeds to take root in the sun-baked surface that is so hard water will not be absorbed.
    Kahoolawe is littered with unexploded ordnance, including a shell inspected by Bart Maybee, a safety officer for the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, who got on his hands and knees to check whether the firing pin was still intact.

ANAKANAIA » The open wounds are visible several miles from the island — strips of red earth cut by explosives, grazing animals, wind and rain, bleeding an estimated 2 millions tons of soil a year into the ocean.


The public is invited tomorrow to observe the 20th anniversary of the halt to military bombing of Kahoolawe.

The event, sponsored by the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, takes place from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the University of Hawaii-Manoa Center for Hawaiian Studies, 2645 Dole St.

The event includes music, the viewing of a film about Kahoolawe and a presentation about a plan to re-establish the island as a place for the learning of indigenous scientific and cultural knowledge.

Ohana officials said events will be held throughout the year on various Hawaiian islands to discuss the accomplishments and the island’s future.

Two decades after the military stopped target bombing and sheep and goats were removed, major erosion still afflicts Kahoolawe, even with some success in planting native grasses and shrubs. Live bombs and shells litter sections of the island despite the largest military ordnance removal in the United States.

But advocates for restoration of this island — equal in size to Oahu’s metropolitan area from Waikiki to Moanalua — remain hopeful as a new generation of volunteers work to heal the land and restore fractured cultural customs.

"It’s more than us returning to Kahoolawe. We’re reconnecting with those ancestors and what they were able to experience on the island … and the wisdom they derived," said Davianna McGregor, a member of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, the state entity managing the island.

Commission members acknowledge that to continue the work, they need to reduce the flow of red ink and find new sources of funds.

Six years after the Navy finished partial clearing of ordnance with $366 million authorized by Congress, about $13 million of the commission’s $44 million budget is left to continue restoration. It’s only enough to operate for two to four years, the commission said.

McGregor, who represents the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana on the commission, said the state should begin to contribute money for restoration since it accepted the responsibility of the island from the federal government.

"We’re getting to a critical point. … We do need public support. Otherwise, we’re going to have to mothball everything," she said.

McGregor said the state receives millions of dollars in revenue from thousands of acres of former lands of the Hawaii monarchy managed as a trust for native Hawaiians and the general public.

"Given the benefits that the state derives from these lands, it can surely take responsibility to effectively manage Kahoolawe as a Hawaiian cultural reserve," she said.

Under a state law, Kahoolawe is to be eventually turned over to a native Hawaiian sovereign entity recognized by state and federal governments. 

Historical significance

Supporters believe their prospects for more funds are good in view of the island’s designation as a state cultural preserve and an archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Places with 544 archaeological and historic sites.

Kahoolawe was a place where native Hawaiians were instructed in navigation by stars, currents, wind and birds to make long ocean voyages on sailing canoes. A southern section of the island bears the name Kealaikahiki, or "Pathway to Tahiti."

A cultural survey found it to be a haven for some endangered plants and animals, including the monk seal.

McGregor, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, laughed when asked whether she ever imagined as an early activist that she would become one of those in charge of the island.

Unlike the early 1980s, when rebels like her were restricted to court-mandated religious visits a few days a month and had to swim ashore from a catamaran to camp on a beach, groups restoring the island now arrive on a vessel resembling a troop landing craft whose front drops to the beach, and people can stroll to dormitories, a cafeteria and other buildings the Navy once occupied.

Hundreds of volunteers go to the island annually, including a group from the University of Hawaii’s Department of Ethnic Studies that last week paid for airline flights to Maui and were transported seven miles west by boat to Kahoolawe to work for a few days.

The volunteers follow a cultural protocol, delivering a Hawaiian chant upon their arrival.

To the east of the bay where they land stands a stone platform called a mua, constructed to commemorate tomorrow’s 20th anniversary of the end of the military bombing.

The commission wants to develop a traditional Hawaiian path around Kahoolawe to provide access during the religious makahiki observance from November through February.

A mua has been built at Hakioawa Bay in the northeast to honor early bombing opponents, including George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, who disappeared in an ocean crossing between Kahoolawe and Molokai in 1977.

Commission Executive Director Michael Nahoopii said many of younger people are unaware of the struggle to halt the bombing.

"When they come out of here, they appreciate more what people did for them," he said.

Unfinished work

Less visible, but deadly, are the bombs and shells beneath the earth that were dropped when the island was a target during a half-century of military use, including World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

At most places where the surface has been cleared of ordnance, visitors were asked to turn off their cell phones for fear a buried bomb could be triggered by an errant radio signal.

The commission staff and volunteers walked lightly and in single file across some areas uncleared of surface ordnance, where on a media tour an explosives expert pointed out a rusted live shell shot from a ship, a black plastic strip of rocket propellant and a piece of an H-6 high explosive resembling a whitish-gray rock.

"A lot of it gets sensitive over time," ordnance and safety specialist Bart Maybee said during the tour. "Remember, if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up."

McGregor said the Navy began the 10-year cleanup in 1994 with the understanding it would clear 100 percent of surface ordnance and 25 percent of the land to a depth of 5 feet.

The Navy removed more than 10 million pounds of ordnance but left 25 percent of the island with surface ordnance. Of the 75 percent cleared, 9 percent has been made safe to a depth of 4 feet.

McGregor said the commission may call the Navy for help if new explosives are found on the 75 percent. 

Spiritual transformation

Helping native plants to grow on Kahoolawe is another challenge.

Normally, a half-acre roof catchment system collects rain and feeds water into three tanks for drip irrigation to thousands of native plants.

But this year has been exceptionally dry — a total of 7 inches of rain so far this year.

Across the hardpan in central Kahoolawe, the wind blows so hard shrubs grow at a slant and a fine film of red dirt settles on the volunteers.

Veteran volunteer Kaliko Baker, pointing to the occasional surviving shrub, said that back in 1993, conditions were far worse.

"There was a lot more red dirt and barren land," he said.

"There’s a chance to have a green island. … What we’re doing makes a difference."

A look at some areas confirms his observations.

Near the 1,477-foot summit at Puu Moaulanui in center of the island, a swath of native pili grass snaked along a slope where bales of its seeds were planted in 2004.

Despite a drought, native aalii shrubs grow in once-barren areas, and volunteers have planted thousands of nutrient-filled mudballs with seeds.

Baker, 38, said restoring Kahoolawe inspired him to do better in college.

He’s received a master’s degree in linguistics and is teaching Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii.

"It’s very uplifting. I see the progress in vegetation that Kahoolawe is making," said Baker, who is now a member of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana.


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