The statement marks another milestone in Malama Makua’s legal fight with the Army.

Nearly 20 years after the military stopped using West Oahu’s Makua Military Reservation for shooting and bombing exercises, the Department of Defense says it no longer needs the land for live-fire training, “now or in the future.” 

Under a 2001 legal settlement with the nonprofit Malama Makua, soldiers haven’t fired a single shot at the West Oahu training site since 2004. However, the possibility remained open that they could do so in the future. 

But the parties have agreed that won’t happen, according to a joint statement submitted in federal court on Thursday by Malama Makua, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth. 

Vince Dodge said the military’s agreement not to do live-fire training in the future is a “cause for celebration.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“This is an important day,” Makua advocate Vince Dodge said at a press conference at the site on Friday.

Advocates see the announcement as a step toward the remediation and return of the valley to the community, which the Army promised to do when it occupied the land in the early 1940s. Instead, the land became a “dumping ground” for bullets, bombs and chemicals, Dodge said, and the military has held onto it. Activists have been trying to get the military off the land, to no avail, for decades, expressing concerns about Hawaiian cultural rights and endangered species.

“We need our military to keep their word,” Dodge said. “We need our military to be honest. We need our military to do their job and protect us and protect our aina.”

In a statement, Col. Rob Phillips, a spokesman for U.S. Army Pacific, said the Army will continue to do non-live-fire training exercises at Makua that are “critical to our mission and soldier readiness” and will continue to make areas available to the community for cultural activities.

“The Army comes with a sense of humility and fortitude that this official announcement will facilitate greater good to the aina and the community here,” he said.

The Army will continue to use Makua Valley for non-live-fire training. (David Croxford/Civilbeat/2023)

Phillips’ statement did not address whether the Army’s new position was an indication it would return any land.

A portion of the land the Army controls in Makua Valley, more than 700 acres of roughly 4,000, is covered by a 65-year state land lease that the military procured for $1. It expires in 2029. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which manages military land leases, hasn’t indicated what it plans to do upon the lease’s expiration. Federal legislation introduced last year by former U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele would have mandated the return of the land, but the bill did not go anywhere.

Under the existing settlement, Malama Makua has access to the valley for cultural purposes, and the Army is responsible for clearing unexploded ordinance from several “high priority” cultural sites. As of now, the Army has only cleaned up half of the 22 locations it is responsible for addressing, according to the joint statement.

Activist Lynette Cruz, a member of Malama Makua, said the military’s latest statement represents the “potential for shifting – we hope – the way the military thinks.”

“Saying that they’re going to not do any more live-fire training, to me, and to all of us, that’s a beginning,” she said.

But there are still historical harms to address, Cruz said. People lived in Makua Valley before they were displaced by the military.

“What happened to them? Well, they got booted,” she said. “Is anybody going to fix that?”

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