But some areas, under constant care, are blossoming into something beautiful.
Every week volunteers dig, plant and nurture this island back to health.
Like these middle and high school students from Oahu and Maui.
"Getting in the dirt, hands on, they get it - it's a lesson you can't teach with words, being here will impact them for the rest of their lives," said Dheya Kealoha of the Montessori School of Maui.
Up to 12 feet of the top soil has been blown away or washed down the mountain. Leaving behind hard clay that needs to be broken up before plants go in.
Volunteers replant at the top of the island, to slow the severe soil erosion downslope.
Not only are they planting Hawaii trees plants and shrubs, there is hope they are planting the seeds of love of Kahoolawe within each of the volunteers.
"It was hard but rewarding, after you see the plants will cover the ground and there won't be erosion and won't be so dry," said 7th grader Bela Hamilton.
These parts are a little greener, but on the hardpan at the top of the island it looks like a strange Martian landscape covered in letters. Shapes made up of bales of grass, dot the red clay, more reminders of the bombings.
"The surface only has been cleared so we can't be intrusive with shovels and augers," said Lynn Abbott, a natural resources specialist. Using pili bales and we can add soil to the ground. Then we'll put in seed. We're not putting ourselves or volunteers in any danger."
Bombs are not the only dangers to this recovering ecosystem.
These small creatures are also a big problem.
"We have a lot of mice, Polynesian rats and feral cats and the combination of those predators is a real ecological threat," said Christina Donehower, a natural resources specialist.
More plants mean more habitat for native birds, like the pueo, but these invasive animals threaten their future on Kahoolawe. Which is why mice populations are now closely tracked.
Another threat to this island comes from fire. Which could wipe out years of hard work.
"We don't try to fight any fire out here , a fire coming through this grass area could ignite any ordnance located out here that may have been missed," said Mike Nahoopii of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.
Kahoolawe is at the mercy of the elements, rain, wind and fire.
But already success here is being measured, one plant and one volunteer at a time.