Right now, only about a thousand people visit the island of Kahoolawe each year.
Could that number one day drop to zero, if the island has to close its doors to visitors?
No longer a target for military bombing practice, Kahoolawe is undergoing a slow but steady transformation.
“During World War II, every major amphibious assault was first practiced on Kahoolawe by the Pacific Fleet,” said Mike Nahoopii, executive director, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.
Bombs scarred the land for five decades, but for 21 years now, crews have cleared some of the ordnance and replanted vegetation.
The Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, or KIRC, is managing the island until its next owner takes over, it hopes, in 10 to 15 years.
“The island and its waters will be transferred to a sovereign government. A lot of what we’re doing today is establishing the foundation for what we believe people want on Kahoolawe when that entity takes over one day,” Nahoopii explained.
Nahoopii says KIRC is essentially “setting the table for Native Hawaiians to come and eat. KIRC is setting up basic infrastructure, healing the land and preparing the land for sustainable living.”
In 1993, the federal government granted $44 million to restore the island for cultural and educational purposes. With one year left in that fund, KIRC will ask the legislature in the next session for $3 million a year. If the money runs out, Nahoopii warns, “I have to shut the island down. Once we shut this down, I don’t think we can get it up again.”
Nahoopii says that would be a shame. “When you come to Kahoolawe the culture is very clear, no distractions. It’s you, the island and the people around you,” he said.
The island’s isolation is its strength and also, perhaps, its grim future.