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Kaho'olawe and the Military





I. Case Background

1. Abstract

For fifty years, from 1941 to 1990, six miles off the shore of Maui, the Hawaiian Island of Kaho'olawe was used as an official site for the testing of bombs and other munitions by the United States Military. Bombing of this island, home to some of the most sacred historical places in Hawaiian culture, is reported to have begun as early as 1920. Under protest, Native Hawaiians and cattle ranchers were displaced from their homes when the island was commandeered from the Territorial Government of the Hawaiian Islands. Despite Presidential assurances that the land would be restored to an inhabitable condition upon its return to Hawaiian control, the island, and its surrounding waters, continue to be not only uninhabitable environmentally, but highly dangerous as well -- to the point of being potentially fatal to those coming within two miles of its shores unescorted. This due to the volume of unexploded ordnance that remains on (and in) the land, as well as in the sea surrounding the island. The US Navy and Marines, along with outside contractors, have been working for the past decade to remove the leftover ordnance, yet the devastation remains, as does the threat to life and limb. Various environmental organizations, Native Hawaiian groups and individuals, schools, and other governmental and non-governmental entities are working, both alone and together, in an attempt to reclaim the ancient sites most sacred to Hawaiian Heritage. In addition, there are ongoing attempts to restore at least part of the island to an habitable state. The prognosis of being able to accomplish this goal in the near future is not good.

2. Description

Serving as a foundation for the revitalization of Hawaiian cultural practices, Kaho’olawe is located six miles southwest of the island of Maui. The smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands, Kaho’olawe covers a total of 45 square miles. Entering the area unescorted is forbidden. Ominous-looking signs bearing a stern warning from the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) read as follows:

"WARNING! The Kaho’olawe Island Reserve contains dangerous unexploded ordnance as well as cultural and natural resources which require protection. Unauthorized entrance into and activities within the Reserve are prohibited.(HAR 13-260) However, there are substantial opportunities for access. For more information contact the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission."

Taken by the U.S. military for use as a target and training area at the start of WWII, a 1953 Executive Order placed Kaho’olawe, Hawai’i under the US Secretary of the Navy with the assurance that it would be restored to a “habitable condition” when no longer needed for naval purposes. The following is a description of just one incident noted by a retired Royal Canadian Navy sailor stationed on a Canadian Navy Destroyer, the HMCS Fraser, which was involved in Operation Sailor Hat in 1965; long after WWII had ended.

According to Larry Zilinsky (RCN retired) in an email dated January 31, 2001, in 1965, five hundred (500) tons of TNT were detonated on the edge of the island to test the effects on Navy ships anchored a mile offshore. His ship along with USS England, USS Atlanta and a couple of others anchored further out, showed buckling damage in the steel hulls and hatches. It takes little imagination to understand what these types of tests were doing to the terrain and the plants and animals both on land and in the sea.

Efforts to return the island to the people of Hawaii started as soon as it was taken by both individuals and organizations, such as the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana. While this was finally accomplished in 1994, the land is far from inhabitable. The US Navy is still in the process of removing unexploded ordnance from the land. According to the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission, oral histories, some in the form of ancient chants, as well as archaeological evidence, indicate Kaho’olawe was previously inhabited for over a thousand years. Navy-sponsored island archaeological surveys done over a four-year period (1976-1980) recorded 544 archaeological sites, containing 2,377 features including camp sites or living areas, shrines or sacred places of worship, quarries, and petroglyph clusters (ancient rock carvings/drawings), some of which are believed to date back as far as 100 A.D. Ancient Hawaiians called this island where they fished, farmed, and lived in coastal and interior settlements, Kanaloa, after the god of the oceans and the foundations of the earth.

Kaho’olawe consists of a total of approximately 28,800 acres of diverse land, which goes from sea level where there is beach access, to 1477 feet above sea level at its highest point. Only 11 miles long and 7 miles wide at its farthest points, Kaho’olawe, the remnant of a single wall volcano, is noted for its steep cliffs that border the southern and eastern coastlines. The north and west facing sides of the island are more gradually sloped, with a coastline of beaches and bays. It is believed that ancient Kanaloa was where the Kahuna and navigators were trained and therefore, it played an important role in the early Pacific migrations. The Kuheia-Kaulani Ili area of Kaho’olawe includes Puu Moaulaiki. In addition to being one of the most sacred places on the island, its lofty perch also offers the potential for modern-day training in astronomy and ocean navigation. With the sailing of the Hokule'a, interest in these ancient navigational arts are being restored. The restoration of Kaho’olawe could do much to further expertise in that once lost knowledge.

Beginning in the 19th century and lasting until 1988, feral goat and sheep have devastated what little of Kaho’olawe that the US military did not. Some of this overgrazing is in the area of Papaka Ili which includes Papaka, Papakaiki and Waaiki. Characterized by steep valleys that run to the shoreline at Lae o Kuikui, overgrazing in the past century eliminated virtually all of the plant cover causing massive soil erosion. On a third of the island, relatively the whole of its watershed, consists of hardpan. In addition to the devastation caused by military ordnance and bombing exercises, reefs and coastal waters have been damaged by silt runoff. According to the Navy in a 1979 environmental report, the clearing of unexploded ordnance from the surface of the island in the areas deemed by the ‘Ohana as most culturally significant, has continued on an ongoing basis by Navy and Marine personnel. Subsurface removal of ordnance has been adjudged “impossible” leaving the island extremely unsafe. Because of the high concentrations of iron ore in the basaltic rock (the source of its famous “Hawaiian Red Dirt”), the use of metal detectors is rendered ineffective for finding leftover ordnance.

Despite the dangers, some Hawaiians still surf these waters and travel to this sacred island for spiritual purposes. Others come to help with the various restoration projects. Wind is one of the major erosional forces on Kaho’olawe and challenges revegetation efforts by Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission. Lines of tamarisk trees were planted to provide a windbreak in the hopes that they would allow vegetation to gain a foothold in the lee of the trees. The success of these efforts is but one foci of research expeditions by Hawaii’s university and community college students, as well as the keiki, the next generation of Hawaii’s children, seeking to embrace their culture and see their land healed.

Timeline of Events Directly and Indirectly Affecting Kaho'olawe:

Approx. 800 AD: Hawaiian Islands, including Kanaloa (Kaho'olawe), settled by Polynesian immigrants who would parent the first Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians)

1400s -1700s: Kaho'olawe resident population minimal -- actual figures unavailable; but important location for religious and cultural practices

1800s: Goats introduced to Kaho'olawe

<1779-1841: Population of Kaho'olawe estimated at 80; Hawaiian island populations overall began succumbing to disease through contact with Europeans; small Kaho'olawe especially hard hit; some inhabitants migrated to other islands

1826: Beginning of use of Kaho'olawe as a Men's Penal Colony (Women criminals were sent to Lanai)

1853: Use of Kaho'olawe as a Penal Colony ceased (when King Kamehameha repealed law that stopped practice of exiling criminals)

1857: Sheep and cattle introduced to Kaho'olawe by Hawaiian government

<1875: Overgrazing by the goats had denuded parts of the island; attempts to revive agriculture on the island began to restore the havoc wrought by goats; island continued its role as an important part of Hawaiian culture and tradition

1898: Illegal Annexation of Hawai'i by the United States

<1900: Kaho'olawe Island population estimated at 80.

1910-1918: Kaho'olawe designated as a forest reserve

1918-1941: Territorial government leased Kaho'olawe to cattle rancher, Angus MacPhee who made attempts eradicate feral goats

<1920: US Military began routinely bombarding the island.

1939: Territory leased the southern tip of the island to the US Army for use as an artillery range.

1941: Lease canceled when US Navy declared martial law, commandeered the island for exclusive use for gunnery and bombing training; Inhabitants and livestock ordered off the island; Native Hawaiian efforts to have the island returned began.

<1941-1968: Entire island used by military: target zone =central 1/3 of island

1942-1945: Kaho'olawe routinely subjected to torpedo bombing

<1945: Kaho'olawe confiscated for exclusive use by the US Military

1953: Executive Order # 10436 issued and President Eisenhower promised to return the island (in a restored condition) to Hawaiians as soon as its military usefulness ended

1965: Five-hundred (500) Tons of TNT detonated on Kaho'olawe near Hanakani'a Bay to simulate the explosion of an atomic bomb and to observe its effects on ships anchored offshore

1975: Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell, Sr. envisions plan to reclaim Kaho'olawe

1976: On America's Bicentennial, "Uncle Charlie" and Maui fishermen organize the first occupation of Kaho'olawe by Native Hawaiians and the groundwork is laid for a series of legal and direct actions aimed at restoring Hawaiian control of the island.

1977: Hawaiian activists, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappear at sea off Kaho'olawe during efforts to repatriate the island.

<1978: PKO filed federal civil suit in an attempt to rescue the island and Native Hawaiian heritage by bringing Kaho'olawe under the protection of environmental regulations, and historic preservation and religious freedom laws.

1981: Island of Kaho'olawe Island placed on National Register of Historic Places

<1990: Bombing of Kaho'olawe stopped by Executive Order of then President George Bush through efforts of PKO and others; Congressional Commission established to define terms and conditions for the return of Kaho'olawe to Hawaiian control.

<1991: Kaho'olawe Island Conveyance Commission recommends the island return to civilian use

1993: US government approves a $400 million cleanup fund for Kaho'olawe.

<1994: Kaho'olawe conveyed back to the State of Hawai'i as a cultural preserve until a (US Federal/Hawaiian State) government-recognized sovereign Hawaiian entity is established to manage it. Bombing permanently prohibited.

<1998: US Senate approves additional $25 Million for cleanup

4, Location

a. Continent: Ocean

b. Region: West Pacific

c. State: Kingdom of Hawai'i/Hawaiian Trust Territories/State of Hawai'i, USA

5. Actors

a. United States Government

b. Native Hawaiians

II. Environmental Attributes

Little known to many outside of the Hawaiian Islands, for much of the 20th century, the Island of Kaho'olawe was used by the United States Military as a site for munitions testing and bombing exercises. Such use naturally raises issues of environmental impact: devastation to flora, fauna, and wildlife ~ both on land and in the sea; as well as raising questions of the cultural implications over the use of Hawaiian sacred lands for military use. In recent years, movements promoting ideas of Hawaiian Sovereignty have become more prolific. While these various groups have not reached a consensus on the form such a transition should take, the voices promoting the return of Hawai'i to its people are increasing. And, while historically-founded grievances are at the center of these discussions, more modern-day issues, such as that of Kaho'olawe have come to the forefront of the dispute as well. Despite promises made when the island was commandeered from the Territory, the island has not been returned to a habitable condition, but rather, the volume of unexploded ordnance both on land and in the sea surrounding Kaho'olawe make it an extremely dangerous area and visiting unescorted is prohibited. Satellite imaging gives evidence of the level of physical destruction of this sacred island now scarred with craters from US Navy bomb testing which began on a regular basis as early as 1920.

Despite an active move by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) to have Kaho'olawe returned to them beginning in 1941 (at the time the US Navy "officially" appropriated the land and began its exercises there), and promises made by then president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 to Territorial officials, the bombing continued. In 1965, the Navy is reported to have detonated "the most powerful non-nuclear weapon" in its arsenal at the time on Kaho'olawe.

In 1976, on America's Bicentennial, "Uncle Charlie" and Maui fishermen organized the first occupation of Kaho'olawe by Native Hawaiians. Later, Emmett, Walter, and George formed the Protect Kaho'olawe Ohana to help further the cause. In 1977 legal action to restore Hawaiian control of Kaho'olawe was instituted by the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana along with direct action in the form of protests and occupations in order to raise public awareness and bring the issue to the attention of the American people. In 1978, a federal civil suit was filed by the 'Ohana seeking to bring the island under the protection of environmental regulations, historic preservation laws, and with Kaho'olawe being home to a number of ancient, sacred, religious sites for the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and their ancestors, religious freedom laws. In 1981, the island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and then President, the elder George Bush, ordered the halting of the bombing and established a Congressional Commission to define the parameters and conditions of the return of Kaho'olawe to Hawaiian control resulting in the return of the Island of Kaho'olawe being officially returned to Hawai'i in 1994. However, this is not the end of the story, but in many ways just the beginning. Issues of the environmental impact of decades of misuse, removal of underdetonated ordnance, restoration, conservation and continuing issues of sovereignty abound.

6. Type of Environmental Problem

    a. Source Problems:

    1. Pollution (land and sea)

    2. Habitat

    3. Species loss

    4. Culture loss

    b. Sink Problems:

    1. Pollution (land and sea)

    2. Waste (live ordnance)

7. Type of Habitat

a. Arid

b. Ocean

c. Tropical

    8. Act and Harm Sites

    Act Site: USA

    Harm Site: USA


    Kaho’olawe Island

    Kaho’olawe Island and surrounding waters (2 mi.)

    Land pockmarked and cratered from bombing ; topsoil/vegetation/birds and animals/fish and sea creatures destroyed

    Kaho’olawe Island/Sea Impact /Habitat

    Kaho’olawe Island and surrounding waters (2 mi.)

    Area inundated with an excessive amount of live ordnance on, in and under the land and water

    Kaho’olawe Island/Sea Species Impact

    Humpback whale migration lanes and birthing grounds

    The channel between Maui and Kaho’olawe  is part of the migration route for humpback whales.  Annually, from May to September these animals return to Hawaiian waters using these migration lanes and remain close to shore where there is danger of contact with unexploded ordnance

    Kaho’olawe Island

    Heiau and other sacred, historical, and cultural sites on Kaho’olawe

    Ancient, sacred, historical, cultural sites of Hawaiian people compromised or destroyed by bombing and existence of unexploded ordnance

    Kaho’olawe Island

    Land, Sea, Coral Beds

    Introduction of goats --massive soil erosion  and runoff  due to overgrazing

    Kaho’olawe Island

    Land, Sea, Coral Beds

    Artillery and bombing practice destroys remaining vegetation/creates cratered “moonscape” exacerbating soil erosion and runoff to sea

    Kaho’olawe Island

    Land, Sea, Coral Beds

    Climactic changes/proximity to Maui’s Haleakala/high winds contribute to dry, harsh conditions

III. Conflict Attributes

9. Type of Conflict:

    10. Level of Conflict:

    a. Intrastate: Threat

b. Interstate: (Indirect) High (WWII, etc.)

11. Fatality Level of Dispute

a. Military: unknown

b. Civilian: unknown (=/>2)

IV. Environment-Conflict Overlap

 12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect

<13. Level of Strategic Interest: Sub National

14. Outcome of Dispute: In Progress

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

  • JOHNS Johnston Atoll Cleanup
  • SUBIC Toxic Waste in the US Base in Subic

  • ARSENAL Arsenal Base Cleanup

16. Relevant Literature and Links

© Cheryl Lewis 2000