Hawaii’s Forgotten Island

The smallest of the Hawaiian islands has been depreciated through decades of exploitation. From being used as a men’s exile colony, live-fire training grounds, and a US military bombing range the distressed island struggles to regain the flourishing natural habitat it once possessed. Kanaloa, Kohemalamalama, Hineli’i, Kahiki Moe and Kaho’olawe, are all names given to the small Hawaiian island that’s been a topic of controversy for quite some time. The current name Kaho’olawe translates “to take and embrace”.

The island is forty-five square miles, and less than eight miles from Maui. In ancient Hawaiian mele (song) the island of Kaho’olawe was referred to as the Child of Maui, with the umbilical cord running underwater, connecting the two islands. Kaho’olawe has rich history. Throughout time, the control of Kaho’olawe has been turned over through several hands, today it is an island reserve.


The island was originally a native dryland forest and grassland. There are numerous cultural sites, Heiaus (Hawaiian temples) and artifacts found on the island. Many ancient stone tools have been discovered throughout Kaho’olawe. In the 1700’s King Kamehameha invaded and “secured” the island. The island was referred to as “ceded lands”, which were the crowned lands of the Hawaiian monarchy. Ancient Hawaiians settled in small fishing and agricultural communities around the coast.

During the 1830’s John Vancouver, a European explorer, brought pigs and goats to the island when it was being used as a penal colony. The alien species ate the native vegetation and consumed all the water.

bombBy 1941 the US military had taken control over the small island, promising it would be returned after war. Families from neighboring islands grew accustom to hearing sounds of bombing daily. Years of bombing and target practice left the island in a barren and desolate state, not leaving much to offer but TNT residue and the metal particles left behind from daily explosives. In 1965, five-hundred tons of TNT went off at Sailor’s hat, leaving the cap rock cracked. The center of debate over the island continued to grow.


A group of activists, Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO), protested the navy use of the island. In January of 1976 this local group “illegally” went to Kaho’olawe. This group was criticized and called crazy for using extreme limits to display their disagreement with the use of the land. Two of their leaders, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell mysteriously disappeared at sea after they expressed their concern for safety. Many believe officials were responsible for the death of the two PKO leaders. After several court hearings, protests, and criticism, President Bush finally stopped all US and foreign bombing at Kaho’olawe on October 22, 1990. A cleanup ordinance was put into place in 2003.

art1e The island is now in a restoration state. In its current state, the island cannot support a livable habitat for humans. The strategy for controlling erosion, invasive species, and the task of re-vegetating and recharging the water table is uncertain.

Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) is responsible for the upkeep and care of the island. The reoccurring rainfall and depleted vegetation is still an issue today for the small forgotten island. The strong winds and rain continue to wash away the soil, leaving Kaho’olawe as a compacted hardpan. KIRC has started the recultivation of the island by planting native plants and controlling erosion with dams. The struggle for a lush environment for the small island may be one for many generations.

Protect Kaho’olawe is a grassroots organization dedicated to the welfare of the island, more information is available at their website.