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The Story Of Kaho Olawe

Author : Rene Thompson

Submitted : 2010-02-01 13:11:08    Word Count : 711    Popularity:   150

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You’re probably familiar with the major Hawaiian islands, like Maui the big island, but did you know that there are actually many other islands in the Hawaiian islands chain? In fact, there are a total of eight that are recognized as the main islands in the Hawaiian Islands, and many other smaller uninhabited pieces of land.

Kaho olawe is the smallest of these eight. It is located southwest of Maui and southeast of Lanai, and measures just 11 miles by 6 miles, with a total area of 44.6 square miles. It is relatively dry because it lies in the rain shadow of Maiu s East Maui Volcano, which has an elevation of over 10,000 feet. In part beause of the lack of rainfall on Kaho olawe, more than a quarter of the island is badly eroded.

Today, there are no permanent residents living on Kaho olawe. However, the island was once inhabited, with fishing communities along the coast by about 1000 AD. Some of these communities began cultivating inland areas. The island was also home to a large basalt quarry. On Kaho olawe, some evidence of these earlier settlements can be found, such as carved petroglyphs on rock surfaces. A stone temple is thought to have been built at least 500 years ago. It is believed that the population never exceeded a few hundred people due to the lack of fresh water.

Due to inter island warfare, by the early 1800s the island was once again uninhabited, although not for long. The government of King Kamehameha III replaced the death penalty with exile around 1830, and the island of Kaho olawe became the main island for exiled prisoners. This law was repealed in 1853. In the following decades, the island was leased for various ranching ventures, none very successful. Drought, overgrazing, and strong trade winds resulted in hardpan land devoid of vegetation. A cattle ranching venture took over the land from 1918 to 1942, when the owner of the ranch leased part of the island to the United States Army, a move that would prove disastrous for the environment on Kaho olawe.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, the United States Army declared martial law in the islands of Hawaii, and used Kaho olawe as a training ground. The entire island was used as a bombing range for thousands of soldiers throughout the war. Training continued on the island well after World War II, and even continued after the end of the Cold War and Vietnam. Mass explosions occurred in 1965 during Operation Sailor Hat, designed to test the blast resistance of ships off the coast of Kaho olawe. The crater from this test can still be seen on the island today.

In 1976, a group called Protect Kaho olawe Ohana, or PKO, filed a suit in federal court to stop such training exercises as an effort to force compliance with new environmental laws and protect the island. However, Navy training on Kaho olawe continued into the 1980’s. Finally, the entire island of Kaho’olawe was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1981. At the time it was added, there were believed to be over 500 recorded archaeological or historic sites, although hundreds more have likely been destroyed by decades of target practice. Still, Navy training exercises there did not stop until 1990.

Today, there are projects underway to remove unexploded ordnance from the island and to restore the island environmentally. The Kaho olawe Island Reserve, established in 1993 by the Hawaii State Legislature, is responsible for oversight of the island. Restoration is ongoing to repair the damage done to the island. To date, more than 90,000 separate pieces of ordinance have been disposed of, including over 8.5 million pounds of weapon fragments.

There are hopes that in the future, the island will be made safe for visitors and a learning center may be created on the island. The entire island is currently designated at a State of Hawaii Cultural Reserve. By law, Kaho olawe can only be used for cultural, spiritual, and subsistence purposes supporting Native Hawaiian beliefs, including fishing, historic preservation, and education. Commercial uses of Kaho olawe are prohibited.

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