The restoration of Kaho'olawe is a marathon, not a sprint. And we're on mile 1

Some unexploded ordnances can still be found from the military bombing practices. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Some unexploded ordnances can still be found from the military bombing practices. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Resource specialists plant seeds in rock mounds that capture the wind-blown soil. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Resource specialists plant seeds in rock mounds that capture the wind-blown soil. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Those charged with restoring Kaho'olawe are taking the long view.

A complete restoration of the island might not happen in their lifetimes — or even their children's. But it will happen, as long as there are people who care.

And while decades of cattle ranching followed by decades of military bombing have taken an immense toll, there are signs of hope.

"This is as far as you can get ecologically destroying the environment. You have the goats destroying the plants, you had cattle and sheep for a long time really tearing up the island, then you have bombing that kind of made any restoration effort very difficult," said Mike Nahoopii, of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.

"But the Kaho'olawe today is not the same Kaho'olawe 20 years ago. Twenty years ago we were walking around and there were bombs everywhere, all over the place. Today, you can spend a whole day not seeing any ordnance remnant."

The Navy was ordered to stop the bombing of Kaho'olawe in 1990 and then Congress appropriated $400 million over 10 years to clean up the island.

Over that decade, the Navy cleared about 75 percent of the surface of the island.

However, the biggest part of the reserve still hasn't even been touched: The water.

"During the clean-up a lot of the island was cleaned, up but the ocean wasn't," said Dean Tokishi, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission ocean resource specialist. "So 100 percent of the ordnance that was dropped is still in there. And a lot of what's still coming off the island through runoff ends up in the ocean."

To protect the ocean, the commission is trying to reduce erosion, in part with shoreline restoration.

Tokishi said the island loses nearly 2 million tons of top soil sediment a year and it all ends up on nearshore reef ecosystems.

More from our series: Reclaiming Kaho'olawe

Nearly half of the island — or some 13,000 acres — are considered severely eroded.

More than 90 percent of that is hardpan-soil — so compact water has a hard time getting through.

And planting is made more complicated because most of the clean-up of unexploded ordnance happened at the surface.

Digging to plant seeds poses risks, so resource specialists grow above the ground, planting seeds in rock mounds that capture the wind-blown soil.

So far they've seeded more than 400,000 native plants.

"One can look at it as, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?' Until you put that first plant -- not on the flat area but in a little ditch or gully or you put a mound of rocks and you pop a couple of seeds where plants are growing," said Paul Higashino, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission plant restoration specialist.

With a small budget and a big island to restore, they're using whatever is donated to them to make it work.

"We took sheets from Four Seasons, wrapped them around logs that created … (a) moisture barrier on the log," Nahoopii said. "We try to come up with creative ways to re-use stuff, which helps become sustainable and then we become sustainable."

Their efforts are helping keep the soil on the land and off the reef.

But there are some concerns -- outside of their control.

Tokishi said that just like most reefs statewide, reefs off Kaho'olawe have seen extensive coral bleaching due to a number of factors, including warming seas.

Despite that, experts say the ocean is on the right path to restoration.

Tokishi said for the last 13 years or so,  the island has seen one Hawaiian monk seal birth a year.

"That's exciting — to have regeneration, to have that rebirth, that symbolism of new life coming back to the land from the ocean as well," he said.

Plans are also underway to reintroduce rare bird species on the island, including the nene, laysan and Nihoa finch.

While progress is being made with the help of thousands of volunteers, it's estimated that generations will pass before the island is fully restored.

"If there is a marathon, we're taking that first leg here," Tokishi said. "We've taken the baton and we'll carry the baton as far as we can and when it's time we'll be sure to pass it on to make sure that that finish line is crossed."

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