The last company of soldiers may have stormed the hills of Makua Valley with M-4 rifles blazing, artillery whistling overhead, mortars pounding mock enemy positions and helicopters firing from above.
After battling environmentalists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners since at least the late 1980s, the Army said this week it is acceding to community concerns and no longer will use the heavy firepower in Makua that started multiple fires in the 4,190-acre Waianae Coast valley and fueled a number of lawsuits.
In place of the company Combined Arms Live-Fire Exercises, known as CALFEXes, the Army said it is moving ahead with a plan to turn Makua into a "world class" roadside-bomb and counterinsurgency training center with convoys along hillside roads, simulated explosions and multiple "villages" to replicate Afghanistan.
Key events in the Makua Military Reservation controversy
Just over a year ago, Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon, head of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, said the Army would shift artillery and other heavy weapons training from Makua Military Reservation to the 133,000-acre Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island over the next five to 10 years.
The plan in the meantime was to resume live-fire training at Makua.
But Mixon, who is retiring and will turn over command in late March, said this week that the Makua goal no longer is being pursued.
"In an effort to balance our relations with the community and the requirements that we have for training, I made a decision – accepting some amount of risk – to voluntarily suspend the CALFEX-type operations (at Makua) and take an integrated approach to how we train in Hawaii," Mixon said Tuesday.
The live-fire training will be conducted at Schofield, Pohakuloa and on the mainland, with the goal of improving training facilities on the Big Island, Mixon said.
Mixon said he does not believe that plan will be changed by his successor, who has yet to be named, but he did caution that an emergency situation might necessitate a return to the former training at Makua.
"Ideally, we’d like to do the maximum number of live fires in any place that we can, because you cannot replace live-fire training," Mixon said in an interview. "But I also recognize the dynamics within the area here, and I think it’s a reasonable step forward."
The Army is seeking to modernize the Pohakuloa facility and to build an Infantry Platoon Battle Area in 2013 that would better accommodate CALFEX training for companies of about 150 soldiers and the heavy weapons that support them.
Public meetings were scheduled for Tuesday and yesterday on the Big Island to discuss the plan, which will be detailed in a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement now being conducted.
Mixon said the Pohakuloa modernization is the "cornerstone without a doubt" to the Makua transition.
"The key piece of that, to replace the loss of the live-fire capability at Makua, is the platoon and company live-fire area (at Pohakuloa)," Mixon said.
Mixon previously said the new use of Makua would
significantly reduce impact on the valley. More than
50 endangered plant and animal species and more than 100 archaeological features are found in the valley area.
The last live-fire training exercise in Makua was held in 2004. No more exercises were scheduled because the Army had failed to complete a court-ordered environmental analysis of decades of military training there.
But as the Army neared completion of the study, it said its intention was to return to CALFEX training in Makua.
Those who have opposed the Army’s use of Makua for live fire were still processing the Army’s about-face yesterday.
Community group Malama Makua took the Army to court in 1998, and continues to be involved in litigation over the valley.
"It sounds like there’s progress," said Dr. Fred Dodge, a Waianae resident and board member of Malama Makua. "I’d like to know more of what they (the Army) plan to do (in Makua) and a time line and so forth. (But) progress is always welcome."
Dodge added that the Army is "not giving up the valley, so there are still going to be issues, obviously. It would be nice if we could get them to do more (unexploded ordnance) cleanup, but this is at least progress, and if there’s less damage to the valley, that’s good."
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who has represented Malama Makua since 1998, said Mixon’s decision is good news.
"I definitely welcome the general’s proposal to ssmove the combined arms live-fire exercises to Pohakuloa," Henkin said. "That’s something that took basically a decade of advocacy before the Army would even admit was a feasible alternative."
In 2007 the Army said in a report to Congress that a return to company-level training at Makua was "absolutely critical" and the only theoretically possible alternative was to spend up to $600 million to build up the Pohakuloa site, an effort that would take 12 years.
Army officials now say they hope the new battle course – more than 2 miles long and nearly 1 mile wide – can be completed about 18 months after the projected start date in 2013.
Mixon previously said the Army would spend about $3.7 million to transform Makua into a roadside-bomb and counterinsurgency center and $300 million over the next 15 years for improvements at Pohakuloa.
The Army also plans to demolish about 45 Quonset huts put up in the mid-1950s and replace them with modern buildings, and modernize its firing ranges with state-of-the-art targets and electronic monitoring capability.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a U.S. representative in 2007, reacted to the Army report that year by saying the military’s attempts to hold onto Makua, a place of importance to Hawaiians, had
become a "symbol of arrogance, a symbol of indifference to Hawaiians, indifference to the land."
He said at the time that he believed the Army could conduct the training it needed at Schofield and Pohakuloa, and that continuing to fight environmentalists in court was a "sucker’s game."
Abercrombie’s office issued a statement yesterday saying, "Gov. Abercrombie supports an end to live-fire training in Makua and he is pleased with Gen. Mixon’s plans to pursue this."
According to the Army, the use of Makua by U.S. armed forces dates back to the 1920s. The valley’s high walls provided a safety backstop for exploding munitions. The Army completed a company combined arms assault course in 1988.
Henkin said Earthjustice threatened to sue in the late 1980s after the Army fired helicopter rockets in the back of the valley.
A lawsuit was filed in 1998 after a Marine Corps mortar caused an 800-acre fire, the attorney said.
No training took place between the fire and 2001, when a settlement was reached, but it required an Environmental Impact Statement to be completed by 2004. In the absence of a completed EIS, there has been no live-fire training in the valley since then.