Saturday, July 09, 2005

Why nobody talks about Kaho’olawe

Looking out over the ocean anywhere on the south shore of Maui from Ma’alaea all the way up to Lahaina, the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe is clearly visible. About eight miles from the shores of Maui, it looks a lot like the more familiar island of Lanai does from West Maui from Lahaina to Ka’anapali.

Kaho’olawe is relatively small, but not the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands. Ni’ihau, an island populated exclusively by native Hawaiians, is smaller. In fact Kaho’olawe is 11 miles long and six miles wide which gives it almost 30 miles of coastline. Still, it seems the island is so seldom talked about, I don’t think I had heard one word about it, and was barely aware of its existence, before our June 2005 trip to Hawaii.

So what gives?

The answer is simple. Kaho’olawe was seized for target practice during WWII, and we bombed it to kingdom come. It remains today virtually uninhabitable.

Back around about 1917 the island was leased out from the existing territorial government to a cattle rancher by the name of MacPhee for $200 per year – that’s about 55 cents a day. Not a bad price for a Hawaiian island of 45 square miles. The lease went all the way to 1954 with an option to renew. A Harry Baldwin bought into the island as well around 1922 and they jointly ran a successful ranch. In 1939, being in a patriotic mood, they agreed to offer up a small tip of southern shore for U.S. Army target practice. It was a nice offer, but may have been a mistake on their part … besides, let’s get real, no deal that good lasts forever. The day after Pearl Harbor the U.S. Navy evicted MacPhee and Baldwin and seized the whole island as there very own gigantic artillery range in the name of national defense.

The “good” news was that MacPhee and Baldwin were to get their lease and the island back (blown to bits) after the war. The bad news was that after the war MacPhee and Baldwin were told to take a hike and were never compensated. When their lease ran out in 1954 the island was appropriated solely for military use by presidential decree. Kaho’olawe became the most pulverized place on earth.

Luckly, Kaho’olawe isn’t rich and lush like the other well-known islands. It’s mostly dry as it sits within Haleakala’s large rain shadow and is generally too low to spawn cloud formation and rain as happens on the other big Hawaiian islands. The coastline is also made up largely of cliffs and there are only a few good beaches.

The bombing continued until 1990 when a native Hawaiian group finally managed to convince the government to stop, and the state took possession of the territory from the Navy in 1994. The U.S. Congress allocated about $400 million to clean up this mangled isle filled with debris and unexploded ordinance, yet the sum didn’t even come close to doing the job. Today it still sits out there as a big, barren wasteland. At present, there doesn’t seem to be anything that will prevent Kaho’olawe from remaining a giant dusty bump well into the future.


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