photo by Monte Costa
An offering at the rain ko‘a (shrine)
on the summit of Pu‘u Moa‘ulanui.
What happened? Goats, sheep and cows—they ate the island. Goats, dropped off by Captain Vancouver, started chewing in 1795. In the early 1830s, a penal colony was established at Kaulana, on the island’s northeastern coast; in 1858, five years after the colony was dismantled, the Hawaiian government began issuing ranch leases in neighboring Kuheia. The ranchers planted kiawe trees, which fed the cattle by root-sucking the island’s deepest and last reserves of fresh water. But even the famous Maui cattleman Angus MacPhee failed to make the ranching operation work. In 1941 MacPhee called it quits: He sub-leased part of the island to the U.S. military and pulled all of his cattle out of there.
Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese dropped bombs on O‘ahu, setting the style for warfare in the mid-twentieth century. The next day, the United States declared martial law and took control of Kaho‘olawe. For practice, the U.S. Navy started dropping bombs on the island, and then invited its international allies to do the same. Heavy artillery was launched from ship-mounted guns; a new brand of torpedo was tested, fired against the island’s underwater cliffs. In 1965, at a point on the island’s western shore now known as “Sailor’s Hat,” some 500 tons of explosives were detonated to simulate an atomic blast for sailors anchored offshore—in the process, the island’s underground water table was cracked, allowing fresh water to seep into the ocean. The island was bombed and strafed almost ceaselessly for thirty years before the people finally said: “No! Enough!”
That was in the mid-1970s, with the formation of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO), a grassroots organization whose members began making illegal occupations of the island, putting themselves in harm’s way as vivid protest. Two young men, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, became martyrs to the cause, disappearing in the waters between Maui and Kaho‘olawe under mysterious circumstances. At the same time, the PKO challenged the Navy in Federal District Court, forcing it to conduct an environmental impact study, eradicate the goats and protect the island’s historic sites. For a time, the Navy was caught in an absurd situation—working on soil conservation and reforestation projects between bombing runs. It wasn’t until 1993 that the U.S. Congress voted to end military use of the island, conveying ownership to the state of Hawai‘i (which thereupon formed the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission), and authorizing $400 million for ordnance removal.
With those funds, private contractors removed nine million pounds of scrap metal and 11,000 tires from Kaho‘olawe. They surface-cleared 20,000 of the island’s 28,000 acres. However, they depth-cleared—that is, to four feet below the surface—only 2,500 acres, or less than 10 percent of the island. They created a ten-mile, cross-island dirt road at the cost of $8.8 million. Then the navy transferred $8.6 million of equipment—trucks, weed whackers, air-conditioners, beds, six helicopter landing pads, numerous composting toilets, a potable water system, and the entire collection of files from its exhaustive study of the island—to the State of Hawai‘i, and that was that. For the Navy, this was not only the largest cleanup in its history but also its largest-ever helicopter-based operation. The Navy’s website on this topic proudly proclaims its effort and closes with a photograph of Hawaiians in yellow regalia performing rituals on a small heiau.