Last night, Wai’anae Coast community group Malama Makua, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in Hawai’i’s federal district court challenging the Army’s decision to allow the Marines to conduct live-fire training exercises in Makua Valley the week of March 22, 2004, using mortars and shoulder-launched rockets that pose serious risks of starting fires. The suit seeks to stop such activities, and all others with the potential to start fires, until the Army completes the ongoing “consultation” process with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service mandated by the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) to avoid irreparable harm to dozens of critically endangered species in the valley and their critical habitat. Judge Susan Oki Mollway will hold a hearing on Malama Makua’s request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on Thursday, March 18, 2004, at 3:00 p.m.
The Army began the current consultation in October 2003, following receipt of a letter Earthjustice sent on Malama Makua’s behalf giving notice of the group’s intent to sue based on the Army’s failure to consult the Service regarding the catastrophic July 22, 2003 fire that burned approximately 2,100 acres at Makua and destroyed at least 71 individual endangered plants and over 150 acres of critical habitat (habitat the Service has officially identified as essential to endangered species’ recovery). The letter also gave notice that the ESA requires the Army to reinitiate consultation to analyze threats from military activities to newly designated critical habitat for at least 47 species of endangered and threatened plants found at and near Makua.
“The purpose of consultation is to give the Army information that is vital to ensure that military training will not push any species to extinction or destroy essential recovery habitat,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “By refusing to wait for the outcome of consultation before going forward with live-fire exercises, the Army is not only violating the law, it is playing Russian roulette with Hawai’i’s irreplaceable natural heritage. History has shown that it takes only one misfired mortar or rocket to spark a catastrophic blaze.”
The last time the Marines trained at Makua, in September 1998, a misfired mortar landed outside the firebreak roads, starting a wildfire that charred 800-acres, destroying irreplaceable native forest habitat. The Marines’ proposed training next week would use over twenty times the number of mortars fired that ill-fated day.
For months, Malama Makua has tried to work with the Army in good faith, agreeing to allow several defensive, anti-terrorist training exercises for soldiers deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the clear legal mandate of prior consultation. The Army, in turn, refrained from conducting higher-impact activities such as the proposed mortar and rocket training. Now, the Army insists on allowing a Marine platoon deploying to Okinawa to train with these weapons, despite the well-documented threat they pose to dozens of critically endangered species teetering at the brink of extinction.
The Army previously consulted the Fish and Wildlife Service, again at Malama Makua’s prompting, in 1998-99 and 2001, after hundreds of training-related fires in the 1990s culminated in the September 1998 blaze started by a Marine Corps mortar. The previous consultations relied on the Army’s revised fire management plan to conclude that training activities would not push the 45 federally listed plant and animal species at Makua to extinction. The July 2003 fire, however, proved these conclusions wrong.
“After the July fire, the Army publicly admitted it made a mistake and needed to go back to the drawing board,” said Fred Dodge, Korean War veteran and Malama Makua board member. “But here they are, back at it, as if nothing ever happened. How many fires, how much destruction must it take before the Army gets it?”
Makua Valley has been described by biologists as probably the greatest biological bonanza in Hawai’i. The valley and its environs are home to 45 federally listed plant and animal species, as well as hundreds of acres of designated critical habitat. However, a decades-long history of live-fire training and fires has left the endangered species barely clinging to survival.
The controversy over the Army’s activities at Makua previously came to a head in 2001, when Malama Makua, represented by Earthjustice, sought and obtained an injunction in federal district court based on the Army’s failure to conduct the required review of environmental and cultural impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. That lawsuit ended in a settlement in which Malama Makua agreed to limited training pending completion of a comprehensive environmental impact statement. The current lawsuit focuses on the Army’s failure to comply with its legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
“Let’s be clear – this is about the military respecting the community, the environment and the rule of law, just like everybody else,” said Sparky Rodrigues, Vietnam War veteran and Malama Makua board member.