Despite COVID-19, life goes on for the Army in Hawaii, and that includes training and readiness, continuing construction and renovation, and on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, celebrated today, the ongoing management of over 120 endangered and threatened native species in Hawaii.
The Army said its natural resources program, one of the bigger ones in the Defense Department, has helped save three native plant species from extinction: the haha, Hawaiian mint and tree aster.
A Schofield Barracks seed lab with 12 million seeds — some cryogenically stored at minus 80 degrees centigrade — as well as greenhouses with endangered and threatened plants, stand in contrast to a nearby small arms and artillery firing range with mock-ups of a tank and missile launcher.
The Army annually spends more than $12 million in the state on environmental programs that support and enable military training. The requirement comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to offset the effects of that training.
The service doesn’t do the best job publicizing the “significant” environmental effort it makes and which extends to “our soldiers who are out there, actually walking around and training on the lands,” said 25th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard.
“We’re probably not perfect, and there have probably been examples in the past where we could have done better,” he said in an interview. “But leaders at all levels appreciate the significance of the training environment here in Hawaii and the use of the land and the need to preserve it well into the future.”
Several civilian employees and more than 50 from the University of Hawaii work on the natural resources program, which, like everything else, is being affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. military in the state remains at health protection condition “Charlie,” which means sustained community COVID-19 transmission and includes stay-at-home and social distancing rules.
The 25th Division, which has about 12,000 soldiers in Hawaii, identified minimum mission-essential personnel “to continue to conduct business so that we maintain readiness at a sustainable level,” Jarrard said. “So if the nation calls, we’re able to go and answer that call.”
Another 18,000 soldiers in the state belong to other commands, including U.S. Army Pacific headquartered at Fort Shafter.
“Parts of” 25th Division readiness have been degraded, Jarrard said. “We’ll be fine for another couple months,” the commanding general added. “There are brigades that will be fine. There will be brigades that this has stunted their ability to be ready.”
Around Schofield on Tuesday, signs of unit activity were few.
“We are experiencing the same events that others are experiencing from the aspect of a threat that is unknown, but we’re becoming a little bit more familiar with it each week,” Jarrard said.
While there remain a lot of unknowns, “we feel like we have been generally successful,” he said.
One bit of positive news: None of the 1,350 Schofield soldiers who were brought back recently from training in Thailand have shown any COVID-19 symptoms, Jarrard said.
As with most everything else, the natural resources program has been cut back due to the virus. Some do telework. But the effort continues in the seed lab and greenhouses and up high on the flanks of the Waianae Range, among other Army training areas.
“We can plant seeds and go out into the range and transplant plants as required (while) still maintaining the distancing and the intent of both the military leadership and the governor’s orders,” said Col. Tom Barrett, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii.
In an Army greenhouse, Paul Smith, a natural resources biologist, pointed out that the state flower, the native yellow Hibiscus brackenridgei, which is smaller than some other species, is endangered and susceptible to fire.
“We really boosted populations of this out in the wild,” he said, with the program now monitoring about 1,500 on Army property.
Army efforts also helped reestablish populations in the wild of the haha, which was critically endangered, Smith said. Generally, he said, no prickles are found on Hawaiian plants because they evolved without predators.
The Army also built four enclosures at between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in the Waianae Range to protect achatinella mustelina, otherwise known as the kahuli tree snail, from predators including rats, Jackson’s chameleons and rosy wolf snails.
The kahuli snail “has a lot of historical and cultural significance,” Smith said. “I believe it’s called the singing tree snail. Legend has it that you could hear the singing of the snails in the trees in the ancient Hawaiian forests.”
Maintaining the protective enclosures is one of the “critical actions that we’re maintaining at full operation right now,” he said.
“We’ve been able to work around the requirements of COVID and not lose the environmental program’s momentum to maintain the Army’s ability to train here once we come out of the current situation,” said Barrett, the garrison commander.