Protectors, please turn your gaze to PTA
Should protectors worry more about the large-scale environmental damage done by military activities at the Pohakuloa Training Area?
I shot 8-inch howitzers at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) on the Big Island in the early 1990s while serving in the U.S. Army. These cannons could shoot large shells up to thirty miles. I was an enlisted “cannon crewmember” (13B) and lived at Schofield Barracks on Oahu for two and a half years.
Twice a year my unit would deploy to PTA for six-week training drills. We lived in “hooches” at PTA at about 6,000 feet, slept in tiny cots, and spent much of our time driving in Humvees and five-ton trucks through dust that could be up to a foot thick on the roads.
It was actually kind of fun much of the time.
As part of these training exercises, I served “dock duty” at Kawaihae Harbor on the Kona side of the Big Island, which meant I got to arrive early and stay late to help unload and load vehicles and howitzers for the unit.
It was this extra time spent on the Big Island, with a lot of down time to appreciate the ocean and nature, that really led me to fall in love with Hawaii and the Big Island. And eventually, more than twenty years later, to return to the Big Island and make it my permanent home.
After leaving the army, I went back to college and then to law school. During my last year of law school at UCLA I took a class called Terrorism and the Law, which included readings by various scholars and critics, including Noam Chomsky. It was eye-opening.
Then, during the first week of my first job as a corporate lawyer in Santa Barbara, California, 9/11 happened. Our worlds all changed.
In the years after 9/11, I continued to read avidly and learn more about U.S. foreign policy. I learned how the U.S. steadily transformed in the last part of the 19th Century and through the 20th from a non-interventionist nation of idealists to a highly aggressive empire (Stephen Kinzer’s books Overthrow, The True Flag, and The Brothers, are excellent on this history).
I learned how the U.S., after defeating the Soviet Union in a long-term ideological and economic battle, became the first “hyperpower” that the world has ever seen, with no real rivals.
I learned how power corrupts and how the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been corrupted by its status as a hyperpower.
I learned how most Americans simply don’t keep track of U.S. foreign policy and often go along with what our leaders say we should do when it comes to foreign wars, just or unjust. It’s not hard to get voters to rally around the flag by hyping external threats — like happened in the Iraq War in 2003 and many other conflicts that the U.S. has started on trumped-up pretexts.
I learned how the U.S. has bases and troops in over 150 nations around the world and has spent over $6 trillion on war since 9/11 alone. We are the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. By far.
I learned — and here’s where it comes back to PTA — that the U.S. military today is more about serving empire and corporate interests than it is about protecting American citizens. And that has been the case for some time now.
PTA is the largest land-based training area in Hawaii, by far. Army and Marine troops train there. But is PTA necessary for protecting the United States? Is PTA good for Hawaii? For the aina?
I learned from long-time Big Island activist Jim Albertini that PTA has grown over the years in various ways:
1. There are three state leases involving approximately 23,000 acres. The leases are due to expire in 2029. The leased lands include Bradshaw airfield and the main base building area.
2. Approximately 84,057 acres was seized by a presidential executive order in 1964 under President Johnson. This includes all or most of the live-fire impact area.
3. In the early 2000s, the military purchased an additional 24,000 acres from Parker Ranch. This includes a maneuver area located between the old and new Saddle Road surrounding Waikii ranch on the western side of PTA.
4. And about 2,000 acres acquired by other means.
So PTA is now comprised of about 133,000 acres of land in the Saddle area, climbing up Mauna Kea to the 6,800 foot level and up Mauna Loa as high as 9,000 feet, with more than half of that area regularly bombed in live fire exercises. And U.S. Army maps state that “All of PTA should be considered a Dud Hazard Area,” presumably because of stray shots or past military exercise areas.
Depleted uranium (DU) weapons have been used at PTA and it is unknown how much DU residue remains in the area.
So why is there not more activity attempting to limit or eliminate PTA and its live-fire exercises?
To this former soldier who is now opposed to aggressive empire building and the corruption that empire brings, it seems that the harm done by the U.S. military every year at PTA dwarfs any potential harm to the aina caused by the telescopes on top of Mauna Kea.
Protectors, please turn your gaze to PTA. Why aren’t the Protectors more active in raising awareness about PTA and pushing back on long-term leases?
(Two long-time Protectors warrant mention here for their activism against PTA: Clarence Ku Ching and Maxine Kahaulelio, both of whom have struggled in the courts to bring some justice to these issues.)
As a recent community voice on Civil Beat, by college student Jun Shin described, a court ruling from First Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang earlier this year found that the state of Hawaii had not lived up to its duty to protect the environment at PTA. Chang found that the state “breached its trust duty to malama aina with respect to the lands the state leases to the U.S. Army.”
The Hawaii Supreme Court just this August affirmed the lower court unanimously.
This is a big legal hook to hang a hat on.
The primary leases are up for renewal in 2029. That’s ten years to defeat that renewal.
Let’s get started.
Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based on the Big Island.