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Marines drop increase of Kalaupapa landings

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    COURTESY WALTER RITTE A group of Molokai residents has put up an ahu in protest of the Marines' plan for a fuel depot at Hoolehua next to Molokai Airport.

  • A group of Molokai residents has erected a Hawaiian ahu to protest the Marines’ building a fuel depot.

The Marines have backed down from a plan to increase helicopter touch-and-go practice landings at the tiny airport that serves as the lifeline for Kalaupapa.

But the Marines continue to anger residents with a proposal to build a helicopter fuel depot "topside" on Molokai.

The plan to maintain the current level of helicopter flight operations on the remote Kalaupapa peninsula — home to surviving Hansen’s disease patients — has done little to mollify Molokai residents, who erected a Hawaiian ahu on July 15 at the site of the Marines’ proposed fuel depot at Hoolehua, next to Molokai Airport.

Longtime activist Walter Ritte doesn’t like any plan that includes military hardware on the Friendly Isle.

"Molokai’s pretty quiet compared to Oahu, so this is a big deal for us," Ritte said last week. "This whole island is special and sacred, and they (Marines) shouldn’t be here at all. That little compromise (maintaining current Marine helicopter landings) doesn’t solve any problems."

The Marines’ plans are part of the preparations for bringing MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey and Cobra and Huey attack-utility helicopter squadrons to Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe.

The Marines are allowed to make 112 combined helicopter landings and takeoffs at Kalaupapa each year. They originally wanted to add Ospreys, Hueys and Cobras to their Kalaupapa practice flights and increase the number of combined takeoffs and landings to 1,388 each year, said Marine spokes­woman Lt. Diann Olson.

"The … agreement is we’re going to maintain the 112 operations," Olson said. "The Ospreys are off the table."

By comparison, Olson said, Kalaupapa’s airport has 3,538 civilian takeoffs and landings each year.

The Marines’ plans for Kalaupapa were opposed by the National Park Service, which runs most of the facilities at Kalaupapa National Historic Park, and by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

They are just two of about 20 federal and state agencies that have to sign off on the Marines’ draft environmental impact statement, said DLNR Director William Aila Jr.

"We will not support any increase in the number of flights to Kalaupapa, or their use of Ospreys at Kalaupapa," Aila said. "Because this had been a past practice with no impacts, we felt it was reasonable to approve what existed but not to add any expansion."

The National Park Service’s concerns include the potential affects on Hawaiian monk seals at Kalaupapa, where an average of seven pups are born each year — the most in the main Hawaiian Islands, said Stephen Prokop, park service superintendent at Kalaupapa.

Most state, federal and civilian residents of Kalaupapa accept the current Marine flights "as part of the defense of the United States," Prokop said. "They try to minimize the impact by doing their training toward the end of the day, just before or after nightfall. But it is disruptive.

"The Marines’ environmental impact statement draft that they shared was strongly opposed by the park service for a place as special and sacred to the history and people of Hawaii as Kalaupapa is," Prokop said. "Most importantly, the lifestyle and privacy of the patient community at Kalaupapa would have been severely impacted. Credit the Marines with listening to our concerns and accepting that Kalaupapa is a very unique airport in the state of Hawaii."

But Ritte and Molokai resident Lori Buchanan and their families erected a stone ahu — or kuahu — at the site of the proposed helicopter fuel depot on Sunday.

"It’s a statement that we have cultural significance there, that they cannot disregard what the people have been telling them," Buchanan said. "We represent people who do not want any military presence on Molokai."

Like the plans to increase flights to Kalaupapa, Buchanan said, the proposal for a helicopter fuel depot at Hoolehua is "not real clear. That was part of our argument."

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