The Pohakuloa Battle Heats Up

Marine infantry train with helicopter support and live fire at Pohakuloa Training Area. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Garrison Pohakuloa

Marine infantry train with helicopter support and live fire at Pohakuloa Training Area. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Garrison Pohakuloa

The “Oh, no!” drums started beating the moment U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa disclosed that the Department of Defense wants to do some major upgrades to the Pohakuloa live-fire military training range between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island – now called by its Chamber of Commerce (but not many residents) “the Island of Hawaii.”

The upgrades will ruin it. It will hurt birds and plants. It will disrespect Native Hawaiian culture.

I say it’s a wee bit premature to go bonkers. After all, we are talking about either 108,000 or 113,000 acres (measurements differ) of OK and not-so-OK lava land that been used for live-fire training since World War II, when the Marines were encamped on nearby Parker Ranch land.

I’m not saying, “Sure, go ahead and build the bigger runway, the cantonment for more troops, and bring on those Thai, Filipino, Aussie and even Chinese troops to do military live-fire exercises with us.” I’m saying: “Maybe, but lay out all your cards first for us to see.”

The Army, the major lessee at Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA), has been a pretty damn good steward of that land, fencing off huge portions to keep out goats and protect the palila bird.

It’s also backed off from live-fire at Makua Valley on Oahu. The Navy backed off ship-and-plane targeting on Kahoolawe. There is much less live fire now at Schofield Barracks.

If you want the military out of here, say so through your members of Congress. Don’t pick at this and that on specious grounds like “that might damage the environment or accidentally damage an ancient Hawaiian cultural site.”

That’s flimsy excuse-making because all that can be mitigated or even fully resolved.

If you’re saying firing a shell into the land is a desecration, well, that’s tough for mitigation or resolution. You’re asking the military to leave, period.

Right now the lease area has barracks, a fuel yard, fire and police departments and a 3,700-foot runway that can’t handle those new C-17 troop transport planes.

It can handle about 2,300 troops. The Pentagon wants to bring in more for periodic live-fire training.

It’s not about noise. Hilo and Waimea are each 50 miles away. It’s not a traffic issue because very little traffic uses either the Hilo approach or that super-lane Daniel K. Inouye Highway – obviously built on the Kona side to eventually handle troops debarking from a Superferry at Kawaihae Harbor.

Should we take that land-lease back and just let those acres sit there as wilderness to see what evolves with fauna and flora?

That’s not a ridiculous goal, but is it practical when PTA is a one-of-a-kind training area for all the soldiers and Marines we periodically send into combat?

That’s the real balance that must be sought – not those intellectual exercises you see in editorials and columns about “cultural assets.”

This is a real-time decision to be made.

Do you want the military here or not?

It cannot stay without Pohakuloa.