Auditor: Kahoolawe trust fund emptying fast

The $44 million Kahoolawe Rehabilitation Trust Fund will be completely depleted by 2016 unless the state commission in charge of using the money to restore the island finds new sources of funding, according to a state auditor’s report released Thursday.

The funds were part of $400 million given by the federal government in 1994 to restore the island after decades of military bombing. The majority of the allocation was used by the U.S. Navy for ordnance removal, but $44 million was transferred to the state trust fund for environmental restoration and other archaeological and educational activities on Kahoolawe.

Now, after 18 years and $51 million spent, the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission has partially restored approximately 13 percent – or about 548 acres – of the island, but “is a long way from its vision of returning the island and surrounding water to pristine conditions,” according to the auditor’s report.

There is currently about $6.5 million left of the trust fund. In 2003, the trust fund had $33 million. In fiscal 2009, it was down to $16.5 million, further dropping to $13.5 million in fiscal 2010, $10.7 million in fiscal 2011 and $8.1 million in fiscal 2012, according to a financial report on the fund.

Because the commission never established a comprehensive and measurable restoration plan that includes an outline of costs and a timeframe for completion, it is nearly impossible to measure progress and assess project feasibility, the report said.

“The commission needs to align its vision of the Kahoolawe of tomorrow with the fiscal realities of today and to plan accordingly,” Jan Yamane, acting state auditor, said in her report.

Michael Naho’opi’i, the commission’s executive director, said in an interview Friday that the initial trust was never intended to be the permanent source of funding for Kahoolawe’s restoration and, at some point, “the state and other stakeholders need to step up to the plate.”

“We’ve tried a whole gamut of funding mechanisms – grants, charitable contributions – but if you look at the type of work we do, we fall directly into what a government agency should be funding,” Naho’opi’i said. “Most (private) funders don’t want to cover making sure there’s housing for our workers, the food gets there, it is safe to live near unexploded ordnances . . . that’s what you have government for, to ensure public safety. We are a state obligation.”

The 1994 Department of Defense Appropriations Act conveyed Kahoolawe and its surrounding waters back to the State of Hawaii and, by law, the commission is responsible for stewardship of the island until a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity assumes responsibility.

“We’re trying to figure out how to do something that’s never been done before,” Naho’opi’i said. “Nowhere else in Hawaii is trying to restore areas; they’re just trying to preserve. We’ve gone one step beyond preserving and are trying to replant native plants, bring the dry forest back, restore the water table, restore life. And we’re doing it in an area that’s been bombed.”

The first 10 years following Kahoolawe’s 1994 return were used mostly by the Navy for ordnance removal. The restoration process didn’t start until about 2004, and in that time the commission has made a lot of progress, Naho’opi’i said.

In the last decade, the commission has created a reverse-osmosis plant in order to provide fresh drinking water, a generator to produce electricity on the island, arranged the transport of fuel, maintained the roads, hired escorts to address the residual risk of unexploded ordnance and patrolled the waters around the island to make sure no one is poaching.

“We are a whole city of our own basically that we run out of our trust fund,” Naho’opi’i said.

Additionally, the commission transports, houses, feeds and supervises about 1,200 volunteers every year who visit the island to help with restoration efforts.

“It’s a very large-scale task, an endeavor that’s going to be multigenerational,” Naho’opi’i said. “And it’s more than just the end result, it’s the process of restoring the island that’s important for the people of Hawaii.”

Kahoolawe is “ground zero” for many prominent Native Hawaiian leaders, including Walter Ritte and George Helm, both of whom were among nine protesters who occupied the island in 1976 in an effort to stop the military’s continued use of the island for target practice.

State Sen. J. Kalani English, whose 7th Senate District includes Kahoolawe, said in an earlier interview with The Maui News that he would advocate getting adequate funding for the commission to continue its operations, though he believes the commission should change some of its policies to become more self-sufficient.

“The state should not leave them out in the lurch,” English said.

In the meantime, the commission is consulting with conservationists, foresters and people who understand land management and restoration to come up with an updated strategic plan that will guide operations through 2026.

“We had a plan that gave us a vision of what the island should be. Now that we’ve worked the land for a few years, is that still the same vision or do we need to look at it again?” Naho’opi’i said.

The new strategic plan will “hopefully” be completed by this fall, he said.

He added that if the commission is unable to obtain funding after 2016, it would have to cease ongoing island restoration work until more funding is available or until the island is passed on to a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at