Army Wins Permission to Train Pilots on Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa
In a 4-2 decision, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved a right-of-entry permit to allow the U.S. Army to conduct high-altitude helicopter training on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa this month. The board also voted, the same way, to accept the Army environmental assessment’s (EA) finding of no significant impact covering the activity.
The training — called High-Altitude Mountainous Environment Training (HAMET) – is intended to prepare 90 pilots and crew deploying to Afghanistan in January.
“In Afghanistan, we’ve experienced several tragic incidents [that have] mandated this type of training be done,” Army commander Frank Tate told the board.
Big Island Land Board member Rob Pacheco said he opposed the training because of potential impacts to Mauna Kea’s population of endangered palila (Loxioides bailleui), whose numbers have plummeted in recent years.
This past spring, in a literal change of course, the Army decided it would fly over palila critical habitat to reach landing sites on Mauna Kea. Despite concerns raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about possible noise impacts and fire threats in the event of a crash, the Army rejected the service’s recommendation that it engage in informal consultation.
Pacheco asked what the drawbacks were of using just Mauna Loa.
The whole point of training on the mountains is to expose the pilots to wind and weather conditions they’re likely to experience in the field, Tate said. The milder climate around Mauna Loa represents the “crawling stage” in that training, while the conditions around Mauna Kea are much closer to the swirling winds of the Afghan mountains, he said.
He added that the Army had received a permit to do similar training in 2003.
Cultural practitioners Mike Lee of O`ahu and Big Island resident Hank Fergerstrom both expressed their opposition to the training because Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are sacred religious symbols.
Fergerstrom, a spokesperson for the group Na Kupuna Moku O Keawe, argued that the Army was trying to circumvent the state’s Conservation District Use Permit process, adding that an environmental impact statement should be done for the proposed training.
The Army’s cultural impact analysis was “offensively insignificant,” KAHEA’s Marti Townsend later added.
When Land Board chair William Aila asked Fergerstrom whether there were conditions in which spiritual harm could be mitigated, Fergerstrom admitted that was a hard question to answer, since Hawaiians are very secretive about their religion.
“It’s heart-wrenching to reveal secrets placed in our care,” he said. “It borders on a First Amendment issue.”
But with the Army’s use over the past several decades of the Pohakuloa Training Area, located in the saddle between the two peaks, “how is this 30 days, with very limited touch-down, going to have a significant impact over what’s going on?” Pacheco asked.
To this, Fergerstrom said he has always opposed the training at PTA.
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin also objected to the use of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. He noted that the EA’s alternative three, to train only on Mauna Loa, met all of the Army’s needs. Alternative five — mainland training — was also feasible, but would cost more time and money and would affect the soldiers’ quality of life.
Ninety-six percent of the remaining palila in the world are in the core habitat that the Army plans to fly over, Henkin said, adding that until the draft EA was released, the FWS was under the impression that the Army would not cross it.
“This species is on the ropes. … The state has a legal responsibility not to authorize activities on its property that will take endangered species,” he said.
Henkin argued that the Army had admitted that its training may impact palila and was, therefore, required to consult with the FWS, a notion that Army environmental attorney Kerry Abramson disputed.
“We did not come to that conclusion,” he said.
Should the board chose to allow training to occur, Henkin urged it to limit it to Mauna Loa.
“In life, you don’t always get the preferred alternative. You get the alternative that is good enough. … [Using just Mauna Loa] is the lesser of two evils,” he said.
A ‘lose-lose’ situation
After an executive session, Pacheco explained that he could not support a FONSI determination if the training includes palila critical habitat. He said he knew the area very well and that if a helicopter did crash, with the remoteness of the slope, “it would have a really deleterious effect.”
“It’s hard to quantify the loss of training for troops … in relation to the potential risk of losing a species. For me, it’s a line I’m not willing to cross,” he said.
At-large member David Goode was also concerned about the palila, but was leaning toward approval because the training would occur for a short time.
“This just feels like the biggest lose-lose,” he said. He added that an environmental impact statement should accompany any future permits.
In the end, Aila, Kaua`i member Ron Agor, Maui’s Jerry Edlao, and Goode voted in favor of the FONSI and the permit on the conditions that helicopters stay at least 2,000 feet above palila habitat and provide immediate fire suppression. Pacheco and at-large member Sam Gon opposed them. All members, however, agreed that an EIS needed to be done for any future training in the area.
“This has been very, very hard,” Aila said.
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Forestry Division Seeks Bids for Native Bird Projects
Talk about a change of heart.
A decade ago, the Land Board turned away a non-profit group, backed by foundation money, interested in managing and conserving the natural resources on 21,000 acres of state land at Pu`u Wa`awa`a in North Kona. The group, Ka Ahahui O Pu`u Wa`awa`a, included former Land Board member and Hawai`i County planning director Chris Yuen and noted Stanford University biologist Peter Vitousek.
The board’s decision, which was not unanimous, hinged, in part, on testimony from the Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s Big Island staff. In a letter to the board, staff argued that the division could handle the resource management burdens of the area on its own.
Fast forward ten years: DOFAW is now asking the Land Board to hire private entities to conduct a variety of natural resource management activities throughout the state, including at Pu`u Wa`awa`a. On September 9, DOFAW sought Land Board approval to allow companies to bid on more than two dozen projects intended to protect native birds.
A list of 16 potential projects in DOFAW’s report to the board includes the management of the 3,800-acre Pu`u Wa`awa`a forest bird sanctuary ($75,000), Mauna Kea forest restoration ($300,000), and seabird recovery on Kaua`i and Lana`i (a total of $1 million). Total state and federal funds available for the projects: $6,238,358.
The board, without questions or comments from the public, unanimously approved DOFAW’s request.
Two weeks later, the board was expected to vote on another DOFAW request to send work out to bid, this time for removal of feral cattle from the Wai`anae Kai forest reserve.
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O`ahu Forest Reserve System Gains Thousands of Acres
At its September 9 meeting, the Land Board approved the withdrawal of 146 acres from O`ahu forest reserves and added 5,730 more.
Roughly 80 acres removed from the Waimanlo forest reserve had been given to the state Department of Agriculture in 1998 for an agricultural research center and related purposes. Nearly 65 acres went to the Boy Scouts of America in 2004 in exchange for private lands in Waikele. The
remaining 0.59 acres, the site of a reservoir, had been set aside to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply decades ago.
The largest addition, 3,592 acres in Honouliuli, was once a preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy and was acquired by the state in 2010.
Volume 22, Number 4 — October 2011