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HONOKANAIA, KAHOOLAWE — The aging military truck shudders as it lurches over the rocky trail. As the sky lightens with streaks of pink, kiawe trees emerge from the receding darkness, their branches claw-like, eerie in the dawn.
Po‘okela Hanson maneuvers the vehicle over the dirt road, leaning out the window to shine a flashlight on the ground because the headlights don’t work. It’s a feeble attempt to illuminate the unpaved path, and it almost doesn’t matter — it’s impossible to avoid the rocks and potholes that jostle the passengers on their way to a grueling day of clearing trails and identifying historic sites on the west side of Kahoolawe.
Nothing comes easy for volunteers with the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, the state agency that oversees the uninhabited island seven miles southwest of Maui.
Kahoolawe was a U.S. Navy bombing range throughout the Cold War, gaining notoriety as “the most bombed island in the Pacific.” Despite an expensive cleanup of unexploded ordnance, the island and its surrounding waters are still littered with bullets, shells and bombs.
Prior to the Navy’s arrival, the island’s environment had already been ravaged. Unbridled ranching and wild goats eliminated much of the native vegetation, causing severe erosion.
Decades of bombing didn’t help. Today, about a third of the 28,800-acre island has been stripped of topsoil, and erosion removes another 1.9 million tons of soil a year, according to KIRC.
The agency has been in charge of restoring Kahoolawe’s environment and facilitating Native Hawaiian cultural practices since 2004, when the Navy transferred ownership of the island to the state.
It’s an enormous task for KIRC’s staff of 18 people, and it’s about to get a lot harder.
Long after the Navy left unfinished its task of removing unexploded ordnance, the state agency’s trust fund for restoration work is running out of money. By next July, KIRC will only have $1.2 million left, less than half of its current annual budget.
A scathing audit last year criticized the agency for spending $51 million but only completing 13 percent of its restoration project. The audit also drew attention to the fact that KIRC doesn’t know how much it will cost to completely restore Kahoolawe or how much time it will take.
Next session, state lawmakers will decide whether or not to provide the agency with more money. If the answer is no, KIRC will have to shut down its volunteer program, the lifeblood of restoration work on an island that many Native Hawaiians consider sacred and want to make whole again — the first land of a sovereign nation to come.
Hanson knows that this trip might be among the last. He’s grateful to be able to work on Kahoolawe, where he always feels closer to his kupuna, his culture and the land.Just setting foot on the island and listening to the wind uninterrupted by bombing is a right that some Native Hawaiian activists gave their lives for as they sought to take it back from the Navy.
On Kahoolawe, laborious tasks like weed-whacking and shoveling dirt assume a certain solemness.
“I put my mana, my power into the work that I do because I care,” says Hanson, describing how he has spent several trips chopping down kiawe branches and stacking rocks carefully to build a trail called ala loa. He hopes it will eventually wind around the island and be used for cultural ceremonies.
But unless KIRC receives more funding, few may ever walk on it.
The Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission was created in 1994 after the Navy agreed to transfer the island back to the state.
That was a major victory for Native Hawaiian and environmental activists after decades of lobbying, lawsuits and protests.
In the 1970s, opposition to bombing on Kahoolawe helped unite Hawaiian activists and catalyze a cultural renaissance that revived language, dance and traditional navigation skills.
By 1990, the radical movement to take back Kahoolawe had become a realistic political cause. That year, President George H.W. Bush ordered the Navy to stop the bombing.
Three years later, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye helped secure $400 million in federal funding for the island’s cleanup and restoration. About $44 million went to KIRC and the rest went to the Navy for clearing up munitions.
KIRC was established to help coordinate the cleanup of unexploded ordnance and manage restoration efforts. The agency is in charge of stewarding the island until some form of Hawaiian government is established and Kahoolawe is transferred to that nation.
From 1994 to 2004, the commission served as a liaison between the state and the military as the Navy conducted what was then its largest-ever cleanup of unexploded ordnance.
KIRC developed a land-use plan for the island that directed cleanup efforts and helped ensure that historic sites weren’t further damaged. Protecting the archaeological sites was a challenging task considering that the only way the Navy could get rid of some of the unexploded ordnance was to blow it up.
The agency also came up with plans for environmental restoration, ocean resource management, and access and risk management, and began implementing those programs.
The Kahoolawe base camp is dusty and hot, made up of about a dozen small buildings left over from the Navy days.
One building has solar power — the result of a University of Hawaii student project — but the rest rely on an old generator, its blare blending with the noise of pounding waves and relentless wind.
Volunteers sleep on sinking mattresses in bunks where cockroaches and mice aren’t uncommon bedfellows.
Despite the dilapidation, there’s no litter, and everything is orderly, down to a precise arrangement of condiments on the mess hall’s folding tables.
Still, much of the equipment seems to be running on its last legs: It’s not unusual for the trucks to break down or overheat.
The quality of the camp reflects KIRC’s diminishing financial resources, which have plunged since the agency took control of the island from the Navy in 2004. By then, the Navy had spent $344 million, but still had managed to clear unexploded ordnance from only 75 percent of the surface of the island before abandoning the task.
In KIRC’s first 10 years of existence, millions of dollars in federal funding poured into the agency’s trust fund each year — about $44 million in all. As programs expanded, the agency’s staff grew to 25 people.
When the Navy left in 2004, KIRC commissioner Emmett Aluli was optimistic about the future.
There was still $33 million in the trust fund, and Aluli told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin he hoped it would increase over time through grants and other revenue.
Instead, expenses grew while revenue fell.
For fiscal year 2007, KIRC approved a budget of nearly $8.8 million, despite only having about $30.5 million left in its trust fund.
The budget set aside about $5 million for operations, including a $1.2 million contract for helicopter services with Pacific Helicopter. More than $33,000 was budgeted for interisland travel for KIRC’s seven commissioners, in addition to $31,000 for the commissioners to attend conferences on the mainland.
Aluli, who has served as a commissioner since KIRC was founded, said the conferences were intended to help commissioners promote KIRC’s work and better understand unexploded ordnance cleanups, and the helicopters allowed KIRC employees access to more of the island than they would have otherwise.
“We started off with very aggressive, promising programs to do more than what we’re doing now,” Aluli explained. “We really thought that we would be able to garner more funds to supplement the work that we have.”
Aluli had hoped that the $44 million in federal funding would last until a Hawaiian nation was established and Kahoolawe was transferred to that entity, but efforts to pass a bill in Congress creating a Hawaiian government failed.
By 2008, the agency realized that money was running out too quickly and began slashing expenditures. It hired a new executive director, Michael Naho‘opi‘i, a former Navy officer who had worked on the Kahoolawe cleanup, hoping he could salvage the trust fund.
When Naho‘opi‘i started working at KIRC, he had to dig through boxes of meeting transcripts from previous years to figure out how the agency operated and how money was spent. Before he arrived, KIRC didn’t publish annual reports or even budget variance reports indicating how expenditures compared to approved budgets.
Naho‘opi‘i changed that, and cut costs by eliminating seven positions, consolidating jobs and flattening the organizational structure. Instead of relying on helicopters to access the island, he forced his staff to rely exclusively on boat travel, except in emergencies.
He has chopped the overall budget by more than half, to $2.9 million per year. The cost of operations decreased from about $3.4 million in fiscal year 2008 to $1.36 million in fiscal year 2014.
The annual budget for the seven-member commission also shrank from $332,728 to $73,764, with fewer meetings held and out-of-state travel eliminated.
The agency’s biggest expense is now a $700,000 annual contract to maintain base camp operations. Another major expense is $100,000 for truck fuel.
The stripped-down budget allowed the trust fund to last three years longer than it would have if KIRC had kept spending money at the 2008 level, but the money is still running out.
Naho‘opi‘i lobbied the state’s congressional delegation for more federal funding, but Congress banned earmarks that are crucial to federal funding of local projects.
Private grants had dried up during the recession, so Naho‘opi‘i turned his attention to the Hawaii Legislature.
For three years, he pushed for a bill that would have given KIRC a steady funding stream through a portion of the revenue from the state’s tax on real estate transactions. Last session, the bill passed the Senate but failed to get through the House.
As Naho‘opi‘i struggled to cut costs and find funding, KIRC’s finances came under scrutiny. The state auditor issued a highly critical report in 2013 revealing that the agency had only restored 13 percent of its project area despite spending $51 million, which included federal funds, interest and funds raised.
The report also pointed out that the agency had no cost estimates for the remainder of the restoration work, no performance measurements and no clear timeline for completion. It noted that KIRC’s fundraising had fallen far short of its goals, and that the trust fund would be depleted by 2016.
“The commission needs to align its vision of the Kahoolawe of tomorrow with the fiscal realities of today,” the audit warned.
Naho‘opi‘i dismissed the audit as missing the point. He thinks that completing 13 percent of the restoration work is significant given the unique challenge of growing native plants on barren land where unexploded ordnance may be underneath the surface.
He said the audit didn’t acknowledge what KIRC has accomplished in ocean resource management, educating volunteers, preserving historic sites and facilitating cultural practices.
“We’re the cheapest agency for our land mass,” he said, noting that the agency’s average expenditures each year fall under $3 million.
The agency has never exceeded its budget, despite the unique costs of producing its own electricity and water and transporting materials to the island, he said.
In central Kahoolawe, mounds of rocks lie scattered across acres of hardpan where erosion has ruthlessly stripped away all the topsoil.
A stone carved with petroglyphs leans dangerously near the edge of a gulch formed by rainwater that the ground won’t absorb.
The area known as Kaneloa is one of the sites that KIRC has been working to reforest with native plants. Last February, University of Hawaii law students planted seedlings on top of the hardpan, using dirt bags and mulch to provide nutrients and protection from the wind.
Returning in September, they saw the seeds sprouting.
That’s not always the case on Kahoolawe, where limited water, strong wind and lack of soil make growing anything difficult.
The intense erosion is the byproduct of more than 100 years of ranching, during which wild goats devastated the vegetation. By 1988, the goat population had reached 50,000, according to KIRC.
The pulverizing of soil through frequent bombing worsened the problem and added the deadly complication of unexploded ordnance. Fear of disturbing old munitions means that volunteers often have to plant seeds above the ground, using rocks and wood chips to shelter the plants.
Paul Higashino, KIRC’s environmental restoration manager, has been experimenting with how to slow the erosion for the past 18 years.
“If I put out a thousand plants, I’ll be happy if 100 survive,” Higashino said.
In recent years, budget cuts have made it harder for Higashino to do his job. He’s had to be more creative with resources: Two years ago, volunteers used white dinner plates donated from the Four Seasons resort on Maui to trap soil and attract dew.
KIRC volunteers have also used old sheets, discarded phone books and even shredded paper from the agency’s office in Kihei to try to control erosion. Commercial materials like erosion control matts and coconut-fiber pillows are expensive to buy and to transport to Kahoolawe. So Hagashino relies on material that’s already on-island, like wood chips and cardboard left over from boxes of camp supplies.
Higashino is not able to spend as much time in the field these days. He used to be on Kahoolawe three to four weeks each month, but now the agency only sends him there about two weeks per month, and he spends more time in the office catching up on reports and grant applications.
He appreciates the opportunity to spend more time with his family on nearby Maui, but he misses Kahoolawe too.
“When there’s a group out there on the weekend I can hear that dinner bell ringing,” he said. “The lights, the feel, waking up at 4 in the morning to get breakfast for everyone, to get work done — it’s pulling me whenever I’m at home.”
After Linda Krieger volunteered on Kahoolawe for the first time last February, she went to the Legislature to testify in favor of more funding for KIRC.
“You can’t put out a forest fire with a squirt gun and that’s what the volunteers who go to Kahoolawe are being asked to do,” Krieger said. “It’s not reasonably calculated to succeed. People are doing heroic things but nature is stronger than little piles of rock and cast-off dinner plates.”
The bill that Krieger supported would have dedicated a portion of the state conveyance tax to KIRC. The measure passed the Senate but stalled in the House when it reached the Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke. The Honolulu Democrat decided to give the money instead to a loan program for developers building low-income housing. She declined to comment for this story.
The Legislature did agree to set aside $2.5 million in capital improvement funds to reduce energy consumption at the camp by renovating the roofs and adding a renewable energy system. But the money hasn’t been released yet and unless more funding is appropriated for operations and administrative work, not many people will be able to visit the camp.
Krieger, a law professor at the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law, said the state has a legal obligation to support KIRC because Hawaii is holding Kahoolawe in trust until such time as a Native Hawaiian governing entity is established.
“To hold something in trust for someone else, you don’t allow it to deteriorate and the state is letting it deteriorate,” she said.
Sens. Brickwood Galuteria and Rosalyn Baker say they plan to seek funding for the agency next year. Both of them co-sponsored this year’s failed bill to fund the island’s restoration.
“That island kind of represents the Hawaiian people in a way and how we’re trying to restore our spirit,” said Galuteria, a Native Hawaiian who is vice chairman of the Senate Water and Land Committee.
Naho‘opi‘i is planning to go back to the Legislature to lobby for more money in January, but it’s hard to say how Kahoolawe will stack up in the Legislature’s priorities compared with issues like air conditioning for public schools that may resonate with a broader range of constituents.
If he’s unsuccessful, he anticipates he’ll have to shut down the base camp in addition to the volunteer program, and lay off employees.
In the meantime, Naho‘opi‘i has been brainstorming ways for the agency to be more sustainable. He drafted a plan to develop 8 acres that KIRC owns in Kihei on Maui to build a cultural center to generate revenue.
State law currently prohibits commercial activity on Kahoolawe, but Naho‘opi‘i said he is open to limited commercial use of the island and its waters as long as it doesn’t clash with KIRC’s mission to preserve its cultural significance.
His ideas include setting up a research station on the island and having cultural tours.
A few companies have their own ideas: West Wind Works LLC proposed setting up a wind and solar energy farm on Kahoolawe, and another company proposed paying to anchor cruise ships one mile offshore where passengers could gamble on board without coming ashore.
Even limited commercialization of Kahoolawe would be a hard sell, given the island’s cultural significance and fears of exploitation.
Still, Naho‘opi‘i is reviewing every option.
“I’m open to whatever it takes to preserve it,” he said.
Coming Tuesday: From fishing to ranching to bombing, an island in transition.
Read the full series and related content here.