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So quietly it almost went unnoticed, the Marine Corps has floated a plan to conduct training with three types of aircraft, including one critics say is prone to crashes, on Kauai and The Forbidden Island.
The Marines Corps put out a small notice on Sept. 23 saying it planned to conduct an environmental study on the possibility of restarting use of two inactive landing zones on Kauai and establishing up to four new ones on the north end of Niihau.
Keith Robinson, one of two brothers who own the secluded island of Niihau, recently told Civil Beat he was unaware the Marines had put out the notice. But he was not surprised.
He said “about six months or a year ago” the military had talked to him about the possibility of conducting the training. His family, which has owned the island for more than 150 years, has cooperated with different branches of the military, including the Navy and Marines, dating back to 1933, he said.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing. It sounds the same as before,” Robinson said. He called any worry about the training a “tempest in a teapot.”
Robinson described training on the island as a “good, clean operation,” consistent with protecting the environment and conservation. He pointed to Niihau’s growing monk seal population as evidence of that. Robinson said he expects the training will be similar to previous activity. Details of the agreement have yet to be negotiated, but Robinson reiterated “it’s minor stuff, very routine.”
“If it doesn’t benefit us or if it destroys or desecrates our aina, then we don’t want it.” — Kauai resident Puanani Rogers
Marine Corps spokesman 1st Lt. George McArthur said in an email on Thursday that some of the exercises on the islands would involve flights at lower altitudes while others would involve “landing while clearing terrain or obstacles.” The exercises are still being formulated, he said, but “we intend to minimize overflight of Kauai and Niihau outside of the training space to lessen the impact to the communities.”
The environmental study is scheduled to be completed by September, McArthur said. He emphasized the plans are not set in stone.
“No final decision has been made by the U.S. Marine Corps with respect to any new or additional aviation training to be conducted at Kauai or Niihau,” McArthur said in the email.
For the Marines, the Osprey is an increasingly important aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane.
The aircraft have been deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and in the Libyan desert for search and rescue during the 2011 toppling of Moammar Gadhafi. Able to refuel in mid-flight, Ospreys are also being tested elsewhere with firing precision-guided missiles and other enhanced weapons systems.
Windward Oahu residents have been living with periodic Osprey training since 2012, the same year plans to train with the aircraft on Molokai were scrapped due to local opposition over excessive noise and threats to archaeological sites.
That crash, which killed two Marines and injured 20, was Hawaii’s first involving the aircraft. The Marine Corps says the Osprey is still safe, reliable and quieter than the CH-53, the type of helicopter involved in a collision off Oahu’s north shore in January, killing 12.
The Marines have emphasized Ospreys are also used to respond to crises, pointing to its use in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, in Nepal after devastating earthquakes in 2015 and in other humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts. The Marines said this week they were making five to seven Ospreys available to help out in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which devastated several Caribbean nations on its way toward Florida and the Southeast U.S.
Kauai resident Kip Goodwin is opposed to the increased military aviation training on Kauai and worried about potential impacts to the island. He dismissed the portrayal of Ospreys as humanitarian aircraft.
“That’s not what they’re building Osprey for,” Goodwin said. “Osprey are for delivering troops into an area and gain military control.”
Goodwin said that, like other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, Kauai is being militarized. He pointed to Okinawa in southern Japan, where two squadrons of Ospreys have been deployed by the U.S. military. The construction of six new Osprey landing pads in Okinawa’s most pristine forest has recently sparked large demonstrations and a police crackdown on protesters.
On Kauai’s west side, state Rep. Dee Morikawa said she hadn’t heard of the Marines’ proposal but that she “totally supports training activities” at the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands on the island.
“Increasing it to more testing is a good thing because, for us on the west side, it’s more jobs, right?” Morikawa said.
It’s unclear, however, whether the training is expected to bring any new jobs to Kauai.
Morikawa wasn’t sure if increased training would face opposition in her district.
“Depending on how remote that area is, people may not even know what’s going on if it’s far away enough,” she said. “I would think out of sight, out of mind.”
Addressing the question of potential impacts to endangered seabirds, Andre Raine, coordinator of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, said Newell’s shearwaters and band-rumped storm-petrels (both endangered) are found on steep cliff sides where aircraft cannot land.
“So long as aircraft are operating during the day, there is no collision risk for these species,” Raine said.
His primary concern was any night activity that would require light, which attracts the endangered seabirds. Any new landing zones, he added, would need to be checked for nesting birds and rare plants. White-tailed tropicbirds, which are active during the day, should be considered by pilots operating in the area, Raine said.
Lisa Crampton, a conservation biologist with Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, said she isn’t worried about increased aviation training. “I mostly think it’s not an issue,” she said, noting the absence of forest birds on Niihau.
“The only time [training] would have a major impact on any non-endangered forest bird is on the plateau on the west side of Kokee Park during the breeding season,” she said.
Endangered forest birds are mostly on the far eastern plateau away from the proposed training sites, she said.
In an emailed statement, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whose district includes Kauai and Niihau, said it was anyone who is concerned should have a chance to say so.
“Depending on how remote that area is, people may not even know what’s going on.” — State Rep. Dee Morikawa
The Marines’ ability to train is “a critical component to their safety and readiness when facing deployment,” Gabbard said. “As the Marine Corps considers the possibility of expanding their existing training on Kauai and Niihau, it is important that our affected communities have a seat at the table and are able to share their feedback and concerns.”
Puanani Rogers, a lifelong resident of the ahupuaa of Kealia, said increased military training on Kauai or Niihau is unwelcome, calling the military presence “hewa,” or offensive and wrong.
“I would like to know how it’s going to benefit our people and our island. … How does it protect our aina?” Rogers asked. “If it doesn’t benefit us or if it destroys or desecrates our aina, then we don’t want it.”
Calling military aircraft “war machines,” Rogers said she wants to see the missile range facility shuttered and turned into an ocean marine research and educational institute.
She said the Marines should be more transparent and give people more notice of its plans. She’d like to see face-to-face meetings with the military and the community.
The Marine Corps is accepting written comments at NFPAC-Receive@navy.mil until Oct. 23.