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Making it right with Kahoolawe

Restoration of Kahoolawe is a multigenerational endeavor after all

Dean Tokishi (in silhouette) speaks of Kahoolawe’s rich history by talking about Native Hawaiian navigation and how the island was a center point to sail to or from Tahiti. -- The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

MAALAEA — Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission’s ocean resources manager said the restoration work they are doing won’t be completed in his generation but “might be done in my children’s generation.”

Dean Tokishi explained the work being done to restore the former “Target Island” used for military exercises and its complex history

Wednesday night in a talk “Kukulu Ke Ea A Kanaloa — the life and spirit of Kanaloa builds and takes form” at the Maui Ocean Center.

The presentation, part of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council series, packed The Sphere at the center with more than 100 people.

“We are giving the island back to its rightful owner in a better condition than we received it,” said Tokishi. “Your lineage, that’s why we do it. This job that we are doing now, the restoration of Kahoolawe, is not going to be done in my generation. Truthfully, it might be done in my children’s generation.

Dean Tokishi

“It’s going to take generations, that’s why we’re doing it. . . . (The children) are the rightful owners.”

Since the late 1770s, the island has experienced harsh conditions caused by ranching, penal colonies and military bombing practices by the U.S. Navy. The Navy took over the island shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and did not stop military use until 1993.

Twenty-five years ago, the deed for Kahoolawe was turned over to the state, and the nonprofit Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission was created to manage the restoration of the island in trust until a Hawaiian sovereignty entity is created.

The commission is responsible for the entire island and the surrounding ocean within a 2-mile radius. Overall, there are 90 square miles of marine managed areas, Tokishi said.

Kahoolawe is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Sphere at the Maui Ocean Center reaches full capacity of 118 people Wednesday in anticipation for Dean Tokishi’s presentation on Kahoolawe. The Sphere is a new dome-shaped, high-tech presentation space, offering reclining movie-theater-style seats and state-of-the-art visuals and acoustics. -- The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

The island is roughly 28,800 acres and located 7 miles southwest of Maui.

According to the commission, about 30 percent of the land is completely barren from severe erosion with 1.9 million tons of soil lost annually. The sediment runoff is suffocating Kahoolawe’s surrounding marine wildlife and reefs.

Other ongoing threats to the environment include warming ocean water, coral bleaching and floating trash and debris that accumulate on the shoreline.

The bombing destroyed natural springs, denuded the landscape and littered the island with dangerous unexploded ordnance.

“In 2003, a 1-acre water catchment was placed at the summit of the island,” Tokishi said. “We have three tanks like this that hold 250,000 gallons of water so that we can have irrigation to our plants.”

They also have installed raised planting bed corridors that are filled with a mixture of potting soil, island soil and fertilizer, which is watered through irrigation.

Over the last 15 years, staff and volunteers reintroduced 417,000 native plants to Kahoolawe and removed about 53 tons of marine debris.

And because of their efforts, Tokishi said that survival rates of plants went from 5 percent before restoration to 80 percent now.

“That’s huge,” he said.

But it’s not just about the lack of rain and water but “sustained winds that will blow sediment,” Tokishi said. Top soil is lost and the sediment ends up in the ocean, impacting the coral reefs.

The commission has put up sediment traps, built water dams and installed fixed and movable cameras to monitor changes in surf conditions, weather, erosion and growth of the reef.

“We want to monitor the health of our coral reef ecosystem and see what things are happening over time,” he said.

About a quarter of the island, or 6,700 acres, remains off-limits because the area is not cleared of ordnance. Congress authorized $400 million for cleanup in 1993, which lasted until 2004. The commission said about 75 percent of the island was surface cleared of unexploded ordnance. Of this area, 10 percent of the island, or 2,647 acres, was cleared to the depth of 4 feet.

The federal money funded KIRC activities during that time. In the last several years, the commission has sought and received state grants to continue operating.

In 2017, the grants, donations and revenues totaled about $1.4 million, Tokishi said. With only 14 commission members, KIRC relies heavily on volunteers. More than half of the volunteer workforce are Maui residents and students.

“We are very thankful for all the help we can get,” he said. “I have the best job in the world.”

Programs that bring community volunteers to the Kaho’olawe Reserve rely on funds raised through donations, grants and memberships. For more information, visit www.kahoolawe.hawaii.gov/home.php.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.