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Scientists urge U.S. to honor restoration commitment in Hawaii

  • The world’s largest body of tropical scientists and conservationists is urging the U.S. government to clean up Kaho’olawe Island.
  • Kaho’olawe Island was used for decades as a bombing range.
  • The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) says $1B is needed for the cleanup and restoration.
Google Maps / Google Earth map of Kaho'olawe Island off Maui
Google Maps / Google Earth map of Kaho’olawe Island off Maui

The world’s largest body of tropical scientists and conservationists is urging the U.S. government to honor a decades-old commitment to clean up a bombed out Hawaiian island.

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), which represents over 500 scientists from 50 nations, released a declaration last week imploring the U.S. military and U.S. government to honor their prior commitment to restore Kaho’olawe Island to its original ecological and cultural state. Kaho’olawe Island, which lies southwest of Maui, was the site of U.S. naval training activities for 52 years (1941-1993) following an executive order signed by President Eisenhower. Although the order promised to protect the island from incurring any damages due to the military’s actions, a legacy of environmental problems resulted which continue to impact the island today.

During its periods of U.S. military occupancy, the island was primarily used as a bombing range. After the U.S. government ceased bombing in 1990 at the behest of the Hawaiian people, it gave the island in trust to the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) in 1994. In the following years, KIRC developed and implemented a comprehensive plan to ensure ecological restoration and sustainable management including soil erosion control, elimination of invasive species, 
revegetation, and marine resource sustainability. In order to achieve these goals, $400 million in funds were allocated by Congress to clear the 30,000-acre island of unexploded ordnances, and to restore the island to its former condition. The Navy was charged with clearing bombs from the entire surface of the island, and from 25 percent of the ground’s subsurface. However, a report released by the Kanaloa 2026 Working Group found that while 68 percent of the island’s surface was cleared of bombs, only 9 percent of the island’s subsurface was cleared to the mandated depth of 4 feet, and an alarming 23 percent remains uncleared, and thus still poses a critical threat to humans and wildlife. Furthermore, the island has experienced extensive soil erosion, resulting in the loss of terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

“The failure of the military to remediate and restore the island indicates the continued failure of the U.S. government to fulfill its commitments, particularly when it comes to the rights of indigenous peoples,” said Jose MV Fragoso, Co-Chair of the ATBC Conservation Committee, in a statement.

Sunrise near Kaho'olawe Island off Maui
Sunrise near Kaho’olawe Island off Maui. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Given that the funds were exhausted before the goals were met, ATBC asks that the U.S. military provide at least $700 million to complete the environmental restoration and removal of all remaining ordnance, in additional to $300 million to “mitigate soil erosion, restore the native flora, and eliminate invasive animals.” ATBC also asks for “The State Fund (or equivalent funds petitioned from the U.S. military) be made available for the full remediation and biocultural restoration of the island,” and for the U.S. government “to provide an endowment that will allow the State of Hawai’i, at no cost to itself, to maintain minimal management of the island for as long as is needed before ceding the island to a sovereign Hawaiian entity.”

The ATBC declaration concludes by stating that these proposed reparations are beneficial for not only the State of Hawaii, but for native Hawaiians, and that this plan could serve as a future model for the management of demilitarization anywhere in the world.


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