Army Impacts on Hawaiian Trust Lands Examined at Pōhakuloa and on Oʻahu

Photo: U.S. Marines
U.S. Marines conduct “immediate action drills” as part of their “Lava Viper” exercise at Pōhakuloa. The Army’s lease for Hawaiian Trust lands at Pōhakuloa will expire in 2029. - Photo: Courtesy

By Kyle Kajihiro

In 2019, hundreds of kiaʻi at the Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu were shaken by loud explosions and strange lights to the west. The Army was shelling Pōhakuloa again.

While the noise was familiar to Waimea residents, it was the first time that other kiaʻi witnessed the violence of military training on the ʻāina. With the end to bombing on Kahoʻolawe in 1990 and the suspension of live-fire training at Mākua Valley since 2004, the U.S. military has intensified training at Pōhakuloa.

As Mauna a Wākea energizes kiaʻi across the islands, attention is turning to military training at Pōhakuloa.

Pōhakuloa is the plain between Mauna a Wākea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai. It lies within the large ahu-puaʻa of Kaʻohe, which runs from the Hāmākua coast over the summit of Mauna a Wākea to the summit of Mauna Loa. The name Kaʻohe can be translated as “the bamboo” and may refer to its importance as an aquifer.

The landscape is a complex mosaic of differently aged lava flows interspersed with kīpuka of rare native plants and animals and cultural sites. But today, it is also home to the Pōhakuloa Training Area (PTA), the largest military training site in Hawaiʻi.

The PTA encompasses approximately 132,000 acres, most of it Hawaiian trust lands (i.e. “ceded lands”). By comparison, it is nearly five times the size of 28,000-acre Kahoʻolawe.

The Army leases approximately 23,000 acres of Hawaiian trust lands at PTA from the State of Hawaiʻi at a rate of just $1 for 65 years. In 2020, the Army began an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed renewal of the lease at PTA which expires in 2029.

Since WWII, PTA has been used by all branches of the military for a variety of training activities, from troop maneuvers to artillery fire to aerial bombing, which has caused severe damage to environmental and cultural resources. The largest portion of PTA is the impact area, which is contaminated with unexploded ordnance, debris, and contaminants such as depleted uranium (DU), a toxic metal used in armor and munitions.

In the 1960s, the Army fired simulated nuclear munitions with DU components at Pōhakuloa and Līhuʻe (Schofield) but concealed this until 2005, when activists unearthed documentation of DU contamination. Fearing that live-fire training could disperse aerosolized DU oxides, community groups have called for the suspension of live-fire exercises, increased radiation monitoring, and clean-up of the impact area.

Some maps of PTA include a blank polygon in the impact zone to designate the so-called Improved Conventional Munitions (ICM) area. ICMs are tiny cluster munitions considered so dangerous that the area has been declared strictly off-limits. As a result, the Army has not completed archaeological, cultural, or biological surveys of the impact area, and therefore cannot know what resources may be affected. Without these studies, any EIS would be incomplete.

Flawed environmental review processes can have grave consequences. In 1989, the Army began building a multipurpose range complex (MPRC) at PTA after completing a superficial environmental assessment. Environmentalists sued, forcing the Army to complete a full EIS. The MPRC was scrapped after biologists found several endangered, threatened, and presumed extinct plant species and even possible new species at the site.

In 2006, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs sued the Army over alleged violations of the National Historic Preservation Act for failing to adequately investigate cultural and archaeological resources prior to Stryker-related construction at Līhuʻe, Kahuku, and Pōhakuloa. Under the settlement agreement, an independent review found that the Army had failed in its due diligence to consider cumulative impacts and mitigation measures for cultural resources.

In 2014, Clarence ‘Ku’ Ching and Maxine Kahaʻulelio sued the State of Hawaiʻi for failing to ensure Army compliance with the terms of its Pōhakuloa lease. A 2018 circuit court ruling found that the state breached its duty to protect leased public trust lands from the effects of Army live-fire training. The landmark ruling also concluded that the state has an affirmative duty to mālama ʻāina.

Despite its record of environmental harm, the Army is currently preparing two EISs for its proposed retention of training lands beyond 2029: one for Pōhakuloa and the other for three Oʻahu leases—Mākua, Kahuku, and Poamoho. While the scoping period is closed, people may still comment on the impacts of Army activities on cultural and historical resources and practices related to these Hawaiian trust lands.

Submit your comments on the impacts of military activities on Native Hawaiian cultural and historical resources/practices, and any supporting documentation, to:

Kyle Kajihiro is a member of Hawaiʻi Peace and Justice and Koa Futures. He lectures in the departments of Geography and Environment and Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.