Years of legal efforts by Earthjustice bring Army concessions
Live-fire exercise on Makua in 2004. U.S. Army photo.
The Army’s announcement in January that it is abandoning plans to resume the most destructive type of live-fire training at Makua Military Reservation on O‘ahu represents a major step forward in Earthjustice’s longstanding effort to protect Makua’s unique biological and cultural treasures.
Makua, which means “parents” in Hawaiian, is home to more than 40 federally listed endangered species – some found nowhere else in the world – and more than 100 Native Hawaiian cultural sites, including heiau (Hawaiian temples), ahu (altars), burials and petroglyphs.
Live-fire training with artillery and mortars, which the Army now renounces, has sparked fires in rare native forests at Makua, destroying countless endangered plants and animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opined that, absent extraordinary measures, these training-related fires were likely to push 30 critically endangered species to extinction. The same training has damaged and desecrated Native Hawaiian sacred sites, extinguishing centuries-old cultural practices.
On behalf of the community group Malama Makua, Earthjustice has been in federal court since 1998, seeking to force the Army to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires consideration of alternatives that could accomplish the Army’s mission with far fewer impacts. Through court orders and settlements, Earthjustice has succeeded in closing Makua to all live-fire training for nine of the past 12 years, as the Army prepared the required environmental review.
Even though not a single shot has been fired at Makua since June 2004, during which time Hawai‘i-based troops successfully prepared for combat many times, the Army stubbornly maintained it could not conduct training anywhere else. It was not until 2008, in a supplement to the court-ordered environmental impact statement, that the Army finally conceded that moving destructive training from Makua was both feasible and reasonable.
The Army’s decision to renounce heavy weapons training at Makua represents the triumph of fact over rhetoric, which is precisely what Congress intended when, in enacting the National Environmental Policy Act, it commanded federal agencies to take a hard look at less destructive ways to accomplish their goals. The decision means that Makua’s unique endangered species will be around for future generations to experience and enjoy, and that Native Hawaiians will be able to reconnect with their ancient sacred sites.
None of this would have been possible without Earthjustice’s commitment to holding the Army to its duty to provide a full accounting of the impacts of live-fire training in Makua’s fragile environment, and the alternate ways the Army could carry out its mission.