- Special Projects
When bulldozers started tearing out portions of Sherwood Forest, Waimanalo residents weren’t just concerned about losing part of a popular beach park.
Native Hawaiians in particular were concerned that the ground was being cleared without proper steps to safeguard the area’s possible archaeological treasures.
Waimanalo’s crescent-shaped beach has been a focus of intense archaeological interest for more than 50 years.
“Waimanalo is important, there’s no doubt about it,” said renowned archaeologist Patrick Kirch, a veteran of excavations across Polynesia who participated in the early excavations in Waimanalo. “There’s been a lot of work done in different parts of Waimanalo over the years. The early site is confined to the spot where Waimanalo stream comes up. There’s another layer of stuff all over the place. And of course there are burials all over.”
Kirch described the Waimanalo discoveries at length in his 2012 book, “A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief,” an epic work describing Hawaii’s early civilization.
The area’s cultural significance first came to light in a dramatic way in 1967 when the discovery of human remains led to a remarkable insight.
Called to investigate, Bishop Museum archaeologist Lloyd Soehren went to a spot at Bellows Air Force Station and found signs of human burials, along with the red and yellow glass trade beads that indicated they were likely victims to the “great dying” that occurred soon after first contact with Europeans.
Subsequently, more artifacts came to light at another nearby site and, through a then-new invention called radio-carbon dating, scientists were surprised to learn that the other material dated back to a period from 1040 to 1219, making the settlement at Waimanalo the oldest inhabited site in all of the Hawaiian Islands.
It is now believed that Waimanalo Bay could have been the original landing place in the Hawaiian Islands for Polynesian voyagers.
The area’s status as hallowed ground grew when human remains held as ethnological curiosities on the East Coast were returned to Hawaii and ceremoniously reburied there in the 1990s by Waimanalo elders.
The site “is the very earliest landing of our maoli kupuna, according to radio-carbon dating,” said Kalani Kalima, a leader of the opposition to the work at Wamainalo Bay Beach Park. “It is significant for all Hawaiians, those who have ever been and those who will ever live. That’s how important it is.”
His view is shared by Waimanalo Neighborhood Board member Kukana Kama-Toth, who has observed and videotaped the site’s destruction with growing anger and despair.
“Scientists believe this is the site of the first colonization of Oahu and maybe even all of Hawaii,” she said.
It is impossible to know whether anything of particular significance would have been discovered on the site that has now been cleared. Sherwood Forest is located south of the area where the most significant artifacts and remains were found. Over the years, the military bulldozed some of the area and historical or funerary material may have been destroyed long ago.
State officials, who were ultimately responsible for making sure the work was monitored so that artifacts were not destroyed, declined numerous requests for interviews, as did city officials who responded in a brief email.
The city began construction at the site in April, quickly generating opposition from hundreds of residents. Many people had no idea the work was beginning until the bulldozers arrived.
City officials say the $1.4 million project, part of a $32 million master plan to build a regional ball field complex, was approved a decade ago by a community group, with the appropriate permits obtained.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration said last month it would be too expensive to cancel the contract.
While some people initially supported the project, the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board has now voted overwhelmingly to oppose it. The Kailua Neighborhood Board passed a similar resolution.
Waimanalo residents took their protest to Honolulu on May 30, showing up with signs to protest Caldwell as he delivered his annual State of the City address.
The dispute has turned into a battle of wills between the city and many Waimanalo residents.
At the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board meeting June 10, Jim Howe, director of the city’s department of emergency services, told a large and raucous crowd that the mayor had decided to halt the project until Sept. 1, which made many people feel optimistic the work would stop for good.
Two days later, however, more construction equipment arrived at the site and workers began digging trenches for water lines to irrigate a future ballpark.
Howe took responsibility for the error in saying work would be stopped. Nathan Serota, a spokesman for the city Department of Parks and Recreation, said in an email that Howe will submit a letter of apology to the Waimanalo board about his mistake.
Waimanalo residents called it another sign of dysfunction and misinformation from the mayor’s office.
“How can the mayor’s representative say one thing and a couple days later, they are going right on with the project,” said Kalima. “It doesn’t surprise us they act contrary to what they express.”
From the beginning, many residents raised concerns about whether the city and state were adequately monitoring the site to protect any historical or archaeological remains.
Responsibility for monitoring archaeological sites in Hawaii rests with the State Historic Preservation Division and its chief archaeologist, Susan Lebo. It’s part of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Under the Special Management Area Use Permit for the project, the city’s Department of Design and Construction was supposed to work with the state Historic Preservation Division to determine whether an archaeological monitoring plan was necessary.
At some point, an archaeological consulting firm, Pacific Legacy, was retained to handle the job.
But residents who have been watching the work said they saw no sign of an archaeologist or any monitoring underway when crews began the grubbing and clearing of trees and vegetation.
A monitor eventually did come to the scene, but “every time people went there, she was sitting in her car by the roadway,” said Kama-Toth.
Area residents took video footage that appears to show long periods of earth-moving activity with no monitor in sight. In the footage, an excavator and a backhoe were shown scooping up mounds of sand and dirt and depositing them into a dump truck that drove away.
Waimanalo resident Laurie Kahiapo said she called the Historic Preservation Division to complain. She said she was told the division had investigated and had twice shut down the work because of inadequate monitoring.
Paul Cleghorn, principal and senior archaeologist at Pacific Legacy, said in an email that he had been told all media inquiries should be directed to Clifford Lau of the city’s Design and Construction Department.
Project opponents said they called Lebo repeatedly to report that the archaeological monitoring at the site appeared lax. They said she expressed exasperation at city officials.
Lebo did not respond to repeated requests for comment. On Thursday, DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said Lebo was not authorized to speak with reporters, and that his department would speak on her behalf. On Friday, he emailed that there would be “no further comment at this time.”
City officials have acknowledged that state officials at some point decided that more rigorous oversight was needed, and at a meeting at Honolulu Hale on May 28, Lau of the Department of Design and Construction said the state had ordered the city to employ a second monitor. But by then the site was substantially cleared.
In an email, Serota of the city parks department said the city’s efforts exceeded what is required by law.
“The project requires that any activities which disturb the existing ground be monitored by the archaeological monitor,” he said. “We have been working with the State Historic Preservation Division and will now be stationing an archaeologist with each piece of heavy equipment operating during the site clearing, even if it is not disturbing the ground.”
Kirch, the archeologist, said the monitor should have been stationed close to the equipment from the start, watching carefully to be able to stop work quickly if archaeologically significant material was unearthed.
“If a lot of sand and dirt is being scooped up, it ought to be looked at on a sampling basis,” with somebody sifting and examining the material, he said. “You don’t let it just go into a dump truck,” he said.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?