It’s been 40 years since a group of Hawaiian activists illegally went to Kahoolawe, an island off the coast of Maui that the U.S. military was using as a bombing range.

After numerous protests, a lawsuit, the death of activist George Helm and advocacy by the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, bombing ceased and the island was returned to the State of Hawaii.

The modern-day quest to save Kahoolawe is much less attention-grabbing. It involves grant-writing, emailing donors and trying to convince politicians that restoring the island’s arid, polluted environment is worth taxpayer money.

The KIRC vessel Ohua approaches Kahoolawe island. 9.26.14
The Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission is seeking money to repair the Ohua, the vessel that brings workers and volunteers to and from the island off the coast of Maui. In this September 2014 photo, volunteers head to the island. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

It’s a cause that’s held dear by many Hawaiians who consider Kahoolawe to be sacred and see it as the promised land of an eventual Hawaiian sovereign nation.

Most of the island is still littered with ordnance. A state agency’s efforts to restore the environment by planting native trees has made relatively little progress. The Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, charged with managing and restoring the former target island, has only about $350,000 left of the $44 million in federal funding that it received two decades ago.

Last year, the agency sought state funding to cover its operating costs for the first time and received just $2 million, a third of its two-year budget request.

Two state House committees meeting Wednesday will consider whether to boost that funding. House Bill 2034 would provide another $600,000, which the commission’s executive director, Michael Naho‘opi‘i, said would be used to repair the agency’s boat and pay for staff.

House Bill 2035 establishes a three-year pilot project to use solar power to power Kahoolawe’s desalinization plant and study the technology.

Last year, severe budget cuts forced the commission to eliminate four positions and reduce three to part-time. The remaining 13 employees took a 5 percent pay cut in order to avoid additional layoffs.

The commission, which is headquartered on Maui, cut the number of trips to Kahoolawe and the frequency and duration of environmental restoration work. Maintenance of the agency’s equipment also has suffered, and fewer volunteers are able to access the island.

Naho‘opi‘i said he thinks the diminished level of funding is not sustainable. Already, equipment is deteriorating from lack of use, he said.

He’s spending this week talking to state lawmakers and sharing the commission’s new six-year financial plan.

Fiscal self-sufficiency is difficult for the organization in part because state law prohibits any commercialization on Kahoolawe.

But Naho‘opi‘i said the agency is planning to use land that it owns on Maui to create a visitor center that could generate revenue. Currently the land is being used for a boathouse and nursery.

Naho‘opi‘i also said a preliminary review by the state attorney general determined that it would be possible for the commission to receive reimbursements for the cost of its work on Kahoolawe, for example by charging tuition for teaching about Native Hawaiian culture and history on the island.

Despite dwindling funds, supporters of Kahoolawe dream of establishing education centers, facilitating cultural and scientific research, and growing food on the island, according to a new strategic plan published last year.

But the success of those plans depends upon the possibility of creating private-public partnerships and fundraising through grants, government appropriations and individual donors.

House Water and Land Committee Chairman Ryan Yamane, who sponsored both HB 2034 and HB 2035, said in a phone interview that he knows it will be tough to secure money this year because of competing budgetary needs. Still, he’s hopeful.

“For me, this is a very important issue because this could be a culturally significant area and we could actually use KIRC and Kahoolawe to teach other countries the need for conservation and good stewardship,” he said.

About the Author