Brainstorming on the future of Kahoolawe

KAHULUI – Using Kahoolawe as a “living classroom,” eliminating all modern infrastructure and existing roads and inviting Native Hawaiian leaders to see the island for themselves are just a few ideas that emerged at the end of the first of a series of strategic planning meetings hosted by the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission on Thursday night.

About 20 residents attended the meeting at Lihikai Elementary School, offering ideas on what they thought the commission’s priorities should be as it forms a strategic plan for the next 12 years.

Discussion was guided by questions such as: “What do you envision as the ongoing and new functions for Kahoolawe?” and “What are the sources that can help sustain those functions and activities?”

“We’re looking at a strategic plan up to 2026, because that marks 50 years of Hawaiian occupation of Kahoolawe,” commission Executive Director Michael Naho’opi’i said at the meeting. “What can we accomplish after 50 years of being on the island?”

For decades, the U.S. Navy used the small island as a bombing range. After a series of protests and the first landing on the island by members of the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana in 1976, the military agreed to cease bombing in 1990. In 1994, the island was returned to the state’s jurisdiction, with a $44 million trust fund for environmental restoration and other archaeological and educational activities.

Now, the fund has only about $6.5 million, which is projected to be depleted by 2016, according to a state audit released in July.

Commission members maintain that the fund was never supposed to be a permanent source of money for operations on Kahoolawe; it was merely supposed to be seed money before the state took over responsibility for the island.

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

Naho’opi’i said that lobbying legislators has been difficult in the past because there had always been millions of dollars in the trust fund, but now that the audit revealed the urgency of the commission’s depleting funds, it is time for lawmakers to “step up to the plate.”

That may mean that the law may be changed to allow commercial activity on the island as a source of funding, he said. State law currently prohibits any commercial activity on the reserve. He encouraged those opposed to the idea to attend the meetings and make their opinions known.

An effort to reach state Sen. J. Kalani English, whose 7th Senate District includes Kahoolawe, was unsuccessful late Friday afternoon.

Now, public safety and preservation are the two major priorities with Kahoolawe’s stewardship, according to commission Chairwoman Michele Chouteau McLean, who also serves as deputy director of the county Department of Planning.

“Kahoolawe is still a very dangerous place, so there’s the public safety concern, but the other is because the marine environment is incredibly pristine (around Kahoolawe), and if that were exploited, it would be a detriment to the whole state,” McLean said. “If it was open season at Kahoolawe, it would be a very short-term gain and long-term loss for everyone.”

Paukukalo resident Roselle Bailey, who supported the idea of inviting Native Hawaiian leaders to the island, said after Thursday’s meeting that there is “still work to be done.”

Most residents in the state, Native Hawaiian and others alike, have not had the opportunity to visit the island, which Bailey said was a critical component to moving forward.

“Hawaiians have a deep connection to the land – and not just the land, but the mountains, the waters,” she said, in support of facilitating more Native Hawaiians to visit Kahoolawe.

Though the law maintains that the island be transferred to a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity -which may or may not choose to accept Kahoolawe when the time comes – commission members stressed that the planning process is open to everyone.

“This is something that everyone should put their hands in, but it should be done in a way that everyone recognizes that there is something spiritual and cultural (about Kahoolawe),” Naho’opi’i said. “It’s not a national park. It’s not your backyard. There’s something different spiritually. . . . The piko of Kanaloa (ancient name for Kahoolawe) is the crossroads of past and future generations from which the Native Hawaiian lifestyle spreads throughout the islands.”

The next strategic planning meeting is scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kihei Community Center. Meetings also will be held in Lahaina on Sept. 9 and Upcountry on Sept. 12, commission members said.

Similar community meetings will be conducted on all islands this fall. A more detailed report analyzing community input, identifying projects and programs is scheduled to be completed by next summer.

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* Eileen Chao can be reached at