HONOLULU (KHON2) — Over the decades, Kahoolawe and its caretakers have navigated a very difficult landscape. Kahoolawe’s restoration has suffered setbacks in recent years, with a COVID budget crunch and a devastating fire.

Always Investigating reported that getting back on track depends on restoring its financial footing.

Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You

Kahoolawe has been many things over the centuries, such as a Native Hawaiian community and seat of navigation. Later blighted by wars of conquest, it housed criminal exiles, then sheep, goat and cattle ranching.

A fateful turn came in 1941: a dollar-a-year ranch subleaseed to the U.S. military for bombing rights.

The shelling continued for decades — targets for torpedoes, live ordnance training, even a 500-ton detonation to simulate an atomic blast in 1965.

“It wasn’t until Native Hawaiians came back and the people of Hawaii decided that they wanted to stop that,” explains Michael Nahoopii, executive director of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC).

“Kahoolawe was kind of like a piko, like a turning point for the Hawaiian renaissance,” said Joshua Kaakua, with the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana.

It began in 1976 with nine people landing there in protest, then Protect Kahoolawe Ohana sued the U.S. Navy in federal court.

By the mid-1990s the island is transferred back to the state to be held in trust for a sovereign Hawaiian entity. But a massive cleanup had to be done, which cost $400 million and 10 years of Navy work.

“They cleaned about 75% of the surface of the island,” Nahoopii said. “About maybe 10% to 25% cleared down to four feet.

Nahoopii also said, “there’s still about 25% of the island that’s uncleared and is still very dangerous. And none of the waters have been cleared around Kahoolawe. So there’s still that risk of unexploded ordnance out there.”

The state got $44 million from the feds. The last installment on that was back in 2004. But where did it all go?

“It created the KIRC, it created the facilities that we’re using now, it allowed the KIRC to operate for almost 30 years,” Nahoopii said. “And it got us to a certain point where that we could show and demonstrate that we could do things on the island.”

“Funding for cleanup, which I don’t think was enough, those are our costs to basically clean up what the Navy brought in,” Kaakua said.

As the trust funds ran out, state tax dollars started to cover in 2016, about half a million dollars a year.

Volunteers do the dirt work. Between KIRC and Protect Kahoolawe Ohana about 700 people volunteered last year.

“We used to bring up to 1,200 to 2,000 people every year,” Nahoopii said. “But because of funding and because of COVID we’ve had to shut down a lot of our operations.”

A huge setback came at the worst possible time during a massive fire in February 2020.

“A large fire started on the west of the island and it started going towards the east,” Nahoopii said. “And then it took out our huge storage facility that we had. This is where we kept all our planting equipment and our shovels and picks, our vehicles.”

Nahoopii further explained that “everything that we use to go into the field and do the restoration work, it got completely burned and destroyed. I think we estimated we lost at least $1 million worth of equipment out there that day.”

They’d hoped an emergency proclamation would help Nahoopii said, “two months later, the entire state shutdown for COVID”

“So all the emergency funding went away. And we also lost some of the gains that we made funding because the projection for the state budget was going to be very dire,” Nahoopii added.

“We lost positions, and we lost funding. Right now our effort is to at least get back to where we were in 2019.”

Michael Nahoopii, executive director of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission

Lawmakers told Always Investigating that they are committed to the cause and cost.

“We decided to make sure we invest in that so that Kahoolawe, which was once used as a target for the military, now can be a beacon of restoration and peace,” explained Rep. Ryan Yamane.

“The funds there are not yet, I think, promoting the kind of healing and restoration that we’re trying to envision for the island,” Kaakua said. “They could do more. But they’re doing its best. The state didn’t launch munitions on Kahoolawe. The state didn’t simulate atomic bomb explosions on Kahoolawe, that was a federal decision.”

So where are the feds in all this — with so much of their mess still left behind?

“The Navy was required by their law to do a 10-year program and $400 million cleanup, but they were also given the opportunity to stop at the end of that,” Nahoopii said.

“I think Sen. Inouye, at the time when he created that legislation, he wanted the best effort that could be done,” Nahoopii added. “He knew that it could not be fully completed. He said, when I talked to him, he left that to future generations to pursue that.”

Always Investigating asked all four of Hawaii’s congressional delegates whether they would support and help shepherd getting the Navy to resume cleanup and investment in restoring Kahoolawe. We have not yet had responses from any of them.

KHON2 asked Nahoopii what is the peril if they don’t get him back onto funding that’s sustainable, while he works on becoming self-sustaining?

“If we stopped doing the restoration work, and all the efforts that we are doing today, we’re kind of turning our blind eye to those who came before us, who sacrificed themselves, even sacrificed their lives with George Helm and Kimo Mitchell who gave their lives for this movement,” said Nahoopii.

Helm and Mitchell were lost at sea paddling between Maui and Kahoolawe in 1977.

“If we don’t continue to work, here in Kahoolawe — which is one of the most ravaged places — people are not even going to try elsewhere. We’re kind of the motivation to try to restore Hawaii try to lead the movement in restoring all these endangered places, these damaged places and try to motivate people to protect Hawaii.”

Michael Nahoopii, executive director of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission

Meanwhile, a capital project on Maui aims to bring knowledge and some revenue. The project is on KIRC land in Kihei next to the boat ramp, with a line-of-sight to Kahoolawe.

“The whole total package is about $40 million to build this whole facility, and that includes filling it with the exhibitions, with the office furniture with the internet with the solar power and everything we want to do out here,” Nahoopii said.

Nahoopii further explained his plan for the facility:

“But really, this building is going to be a community center, it’s going to be an education center. Part of our center is not only will we have exhibits where they can see, but we’ll have physical planting areas where we can show them actually how we’re doing the restoration on the island. And then hopefully, one of these days they’ll be interested and they’ll have the time and they’ll come volunteer with us and they’ll help us with the work.”

A display at the Maui Ocean Center now gives a sense of the impact a dedicated facility could make.

“We see a lot of people coming out of here, especially, who are quite emotional. Many times I see people crying here in the exhibit, because a lot of people did not realize what actually has happened on Kahoolawe,” said Tapani Vuori, general manager at the Maui Ocean Center.

Vuori said exhibits and the new center can, “elevate the public discourse and the presence of Kahoolawe with the public.”

“Folks that are maybe have on wheelchair or other kind of access issues, not everybody can get to island, so having a site affords the public, in particular, locals but also visitors to understand part of our state,” Kaakua said. “I think it’s really an education and a cultural puka that 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, why did we never have that? That was really needed.”

Especially considering what is and is not in store for Kahoolawe itself.

“The ability for them to bring in revenue is very limited,” Yamane said. “The island is like a cultural sanctuary. So it’s not going to be used for tourists.”

If they can raise the money to build the center, more people can be engaged and self-sustaining funds can be raised while leaving Kahoolawe itself untouched except by restorative hands.

Nahoopii said that Kahoolawe will be a living cultural park.

What’s going on around the globe. Find out in International News

“It is a place that you can go away from the city, from the lights from the machinery, the technology, and really immerse yourself into what traditional Hawaiian cultural practices look like,” said Nahoopii. “Eventually, this is going to be the land trust for a sovereign Hawaiian nation. In one of these future years, people may be living out there.”