The Hawaii statutes governing the island of Kaho‘olawe are very clear: “Commercial activity is prohibited in the reserve.” That’s it–no stipulations, conditions, sub-paragraphs. Just a clear, total ban on any and all commercial activities anywhere near Kaho‘olawe. And for many activists, residents and officials who care about the island that spent 50 years shuddering under U.S. Navy bombs, it’s a perfectly reasonable law.
“To many, Kaho‘olawe is a symbol of resilience, hope for the future of the Hawaiian Nation, and an opportunity to rebuild a cultural heritage,” said Colette Y. Machado, a Molokai resident and trustee with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, in a Feb. 26, 2015 letter to the state Senate Ways and Means Committee. “The mission of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission is to implement the vision for Kaho‘olawe Island in which the kino (body) of Kaho‘olawe is restored and na poe o Hawai‘i (the people of Hawai‘i) care for the land. The Commission has pledged to provide for the meaningful and safe use of Kaho‘olawe for the purpose of traditional and cultural practices of the native Hawaiian people and to undertake the restoration of the island and its waters.”
But now that law may change. A new amended version of Senate Bill 897–which originally appropriated $6 million to the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC)–now includes language that legalizes “limited revenue-generating activities” on the island to support “the rehabilitation and environmental restoration of the island reserve” (the dollar amount of the appropriation has also been changed to, well, a blank). The bill would go into effect in 2050.
What those activities are, and how much money they might bring in, are not specified in the bill (an earlier amendment referred to them as “commercial activities” and much of the testimony that follows refers to them as such). Are we talking surf schools, casinos, parasailing and guided tours? Remember that something like 90 percent of the island still hasn’t been completely cleared of spent ordinance. Who knows, though a brief Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee report on the bill does list other places around the world that Kaho‘olawe might follow.
“Your Committee finds the need to support the financial viability of the Kaho‘olawe Island reserve Commission,” states the report. “In addition to appropriating funds, it is the committee’s hope that the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission be able to emulate the models for areas such as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine National Sanctuary [sic], Marae of New Zealand, and other similar models which utilize limited commercial activities to help the [sic] achieve financial sustainability.”
According to KIRC officials, the reason for such potentially drastic action is simple: the reserve is running out of money.
“The state [of Hawaii] has never allocated money to the KIRC, to the restoration of Kaho’olawe,” said Kelly McHugh, the KIRC’s public information officer. “They want this to be a partnership. They just really want to know that they’re putting a long-term, sustainable plan into effect.”
All of this comes at a time when KIRC’s two-year effort aimed at restoring the Hakioawa watershed on Kaho‘olawe is nearly done. The project involved 600 volunteers working 12,000 hours to put 20,000 native plants into the ground, according to a Feb. 26 KIRC newsletter. The funding for the project came from the state Department of Health Clean Water Branch and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“The Clean Water Act funding and the overwhelming number of volunteers that have donated their time and energy to this project have been instrumental to furthering our mission to protect, preserve and restore the Reserve’s historical, archaeological and environmental resources,” said KIRC Executive Director Michael Naho‘opi‘i in the newsletter. “With their support, the Commission has broken new ground in developing innovative solutions to overcome physical and logistical challenges that no other State agency or organization in Hawai’i has faced in an endeavor that is for the future of Hawai‘i and its people.”
The erosion at Hakioawa–which KIRC estimates at 1.9 million tons of soil per year–is due to the island’s history as both a massive ranch for goats and, during World War II and the Cold War, a U.S. Navy bombing range. KIRC used native plants to help restore the island’s ecosystem in its plan to stop the erosion–one step in a very large project aimed at returning some measure of self-sufficiency to the island.
Since 1994, when the U.S. Navy conveyed Kaho‘olawe to the State of Hawaii, the KIRC has lived off a $44 million trust fund. But that money’s running out, according to the state Auditor’s Office, which issued a detailed report on the reserve’s financial state in 2013. The state Auditor also concluded that the KIRC was attempting to fulfill an “ill-defined” mission with little long-term funding plans.
“The commission’s vision for the island is one where ‘forest and shrublands of native plants and other biota clothe its slopes and valleys,’” states the 2013 state Auditor’s report. “How many years and how much money it will take to realize this vision has not been clearly articulated. According to one of the commission’s planning documents, restoration efforts could last 40 to 400 or even 4,000 years.”
Last month, acting state Auditor Jan K. Yamane submitted written testimony on SB 897 to the Senate’s Hawaiian Affairs and Ways and Means Committees. Though the testimony doesn’t mention legalizing commercial activities on Kaho‘olawe, it does say that merely appropriating more money isn’t a solution.
“Although it has cut its budget, it continues to deplete the trust fund and at its current rate of spending, the trust fund will be completely exhausted by 2016,” Yamane wrote. “While this measure will appropriate needed funds to the depleting trust fund for fiscal year 2016-2017, it does not address the commission’s rate of spending and inability to successfully raise funds to preserve the trust.”
McHugh said that the current amended version of SB 897 doesn’t mention which “limited revenue-generating activities” would be acceptable on Kaho‘olawe because no one really knows what they are. What’s more, she said they probably wouldn’t be thrashed out before the end of the current legislative session.
“The next step with us is to sit down with the staff and brainstorm what these commercial activities might be,” McHugh said. McHugh speculated that one possible “activity” might be some sort of college course taught on the island that is funded through tuition.
“We know this is a huge hot topic,” McHugh added. “And we know many of our commissioners are trepidatious as to what it could mean.”
It’s hot, to say the least. The Legislature’s website is packed with testimony on SB 897, and a considerable amount of it expresses great support for the bill’s original version and strong opposition to the amended language.
“We strongly support the state fulfilling its responsibility to fund the KIRC,” Joshua Kaakua, a member of Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana, said in his Feb. 26 testimony before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “We submitted testimony in support of the original wording of SB 897, and we stand by that support for the original version of SB 897. However, consistent with our longstanding position, we strongly oppose the amendments in SB897 S.D. 1 that would allow commercial uses of the island and its surrounding waters, especially the elimination of the wording ‘Commercial uses shall be strictly prohibited.’ in HRS 6K-3(b).”
Colette Machado (who offered her testimony as a private citizen) agreed with Kaakua in her own testimony. “I stand firm with the Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana’s longstanding position regarding commercial activities,” she wrote in her Feb. 25 letter. “I support the original wording of Hawaii Revised Statue [sic] and oppose any compromise to allow ‘limited commercial activities.’”
Other activists who would otherwise support SB 897 expressed similar frustrations.
“I support the intent of this bill to help increase the capacity of KIRC to continue sustainably,” said Bobby-John Campbell in testimony emailed to the WAM Committee on Feb. 25. “I am, however, slightly concerned with the commercial activities clause. I would prefer more specific language targeting not simply ‘commercial activities,’ but activities not in contrary [sic] to KIRC’s existing goals under this chapter, which also create a sustainable source of revenue for rehabilitation/restoration efforts.”
Davianna Pomaikai McGregor is a University of Hawaii social sciences professor member of Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana.
“I would say this is disappointing that we can’t as a state, as a whole, recognize a place is sacred,” she told me. “Not everything needs to be commodified.”
Like McHugh, McGregor speculated that KIRC could raise money through tuition-funded education programs. “I think there are partnerships that the Kahoolawe Island Reserve can develop to share costs with users,” she said. “But just saying ‘limited commercial activities’ is too broad. It opens the door too wide.”
What happens next is unknown. While SB 897 contains the commercial language, its House of Representatives counterpart–HB 438–does not. And while McHugh said KIRC staff would work on defining “limited revenue-generating activities” in advance of the next commission meeting, she couldn’t say exactly when that meeting would take place. “It was originally scheduled for the 17th of March, but there’s some question as to whether we’ll have a quorum,” she said.
Cover photo: Andrew Wright
Cover design/artistic rendition: Darris Hurst