In 1964, the state of Hawaii awarded a 65-year lease to the United States Armed Forces for 23,000 acres of Hawaiian Kingdom crown (“ceded”) lands at Pohakuloa on Hawaii island for just $1. Literally, for a single dollar.

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This was combined with 80,000 acres of adjacent land that the federal government confiscated after Hawaii was annexed to establish the Pohakuloa Training Area during World War II. The PTA has served as a training ground for U.S. marines ever since, and is used for testing and live-fire training by the military, especially during large-scale war-games like “RIMPAC” (Rim of the Pacific Exercises).

Ceded lands are public lands, and are required to be held in trust by the state for Hawaiian beneficiaries and the general public at-large. This is clearly articulated in Article 12, Section 4 of the Hawaii State Constitution.

While the constitution allows public lands to have uses other than conservation — such as for-profit development or, in this case, military training — it places stringent requirements on such uses that must be fully met, in order to be legitimate and lawful.

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 21st infantry Regiment, “Gimlets” 2nd Striker Brigade Combat Team, 25 ID conducting exercises at the Pohakuloa Training Area, 2012.

Flickr: 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Div

Politically, the $1 lease in the original negotiations shows observers at first glance how unbalanced the scales of power were going into negotiations. This unbalance can be further seen when it comes to disputes on lease terms, as the Army Corps of Engineers is the party that needs to be sought out to rectify the situation.

We may have failed, but through the lease provisions, we still had the ability to hold the military accountable, and show leadership in an uncomfortable situation. As part of the condition for leasing the public lands at Pohakuloa to the US Army, the military is supposed to maintain the environment there through regular clean-ups of unexploded munitions and other harmful by-products of live-fire testing (including depleted uranium from some of the ammunition used there, and other chemicals).

Fiduciary Responsibility

The depleted uranium being present on the land was so concerning that the Hawaii County Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution in 2008 that requested a halt to live-fire training in order to take further action on the presence of depleted uranium in PTA. The state agency with the fiduciary responsibility for enforcing this condition, and for protecting and conserving public land generally, is the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Despite these requirements, the military has failed in its duty to maintain these public lands, and the DLNR has also failed in its duty to hold the USAF accountable for the damage it has inflicted. Four years after cultural practitioners Clarence “Ku” Ching and Mary Maxine Kahaulelio filed a lawsuit, First Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang declared, in May of 2019, that the DLNR “breached its trust duty to malama aina with respect to the lands the state leases to the U.S. Army.”

“The DLNR did not rise to the challenge of leadership.”

The DLNR was supposed to develop and implement a plan to ensure public lands like those at Pohakuloa are cared for by the military. It did not do this. It did not rise to the challenge of leadership.

Situated in the saddle between three volcanoes — Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai — Pohakuloa (which means “long stone”) and the many rocks that dot its landscape, are considered sacred by cultural practitioners like Ching and Kahaulelio. As the struggle on Mauna Kea has shown us, the sacred meaning Pohakuloa carries is both a powerful and relevant motivation for many Hawaiians today.

But beyond that, the mismanagement of public land at Pohakuloa is just one example in a long line of constitutional violations of the public trust doctrine. We cannot allow this kind of violation to continue.

Unfortunately, rather than accept responsibility for this breach of public trust, the Ige administration has, instead, once again doubled down on its bad policy, appealing Judge Chang’s decision to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Spc. Erin Elder of the 57th Military Police Company, 728th Military Police Battalion, 8th MP Brigade, during the company’s field exercise, at Pohakuloa Training Area, 2012.

Flickr: DVIDSHUB

Looking long term, in 2022, Hawaii voters will elect our next governor. This will be a consequential election as assuming that same governor is elected for a second term, in those 8 years, their responsibilities will include appointing new members of the DLNR’s executive body, the Board of Land and Natural Resources with the consent of the state Senate.

The BLNR is the board that has the responsibility “to review and take action on department submittals” such as land leases as stated on their website. Although PTA’s lease itself expires in 2029, official negotiations to renew the lease will begin in 2027.

We have the opportunity to stop the renewal of the military’s lease past 2029, and begin the return of these lands. BLNR will have a crucial role to play as decision makers in these negotiations. That being said, we should begin organizing ourselves to halt the damage being done at Pohakuloa.

There are practical tasks we can do right now, like register to vote. By registering to vote and using resources like the Office of Elections website to register others to vote, we can not only elect a governor who will be our ally, but also local politicians that will hold the Ige administration and U.S. military accountable.

Campaigns are also starting up for the 2020 local elections. When you see these future or current political leaders at your local supermarket or meet and greets, you can begin to raise awareness by asking questions and getting each candidate’s positions on this issue.

From Makua Valley, Oahu, to Pohakuloa — the legacy of militarism and its resultant environmental degradation did not end at Kahoolawe. Rather, it was the movement to reclaim these lands for future generations that began there, and continues to advance into the 21st century.

Building on our history, our efforts need to reach a point where our leaders are held properly accountable through our long term collective actions and have the political will to see the lease negotiations through in favor of Aloha Aina.

I hope that whether it is the sacredness of lands like Pohakuloa, the concern over the role Hawaii plays in militarism, undoing historical wrongs, conservation of our public lands, or the desire for accountable government that you learn more about this issue and choose to get involved.

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About the Author

  • Jun Shin
    Jun Shin is a student at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He serves as the Environmental Justice Action Committee Chair for the Young Progressives Demanding Action-Hawaii, and is in the fourth cohort of the Hawaii Alliance For Progressive Action’s Kuleana Academy leadership development and nonpartisan candidate training program.