Military’s Mauna Kea rec area plans a no-go

  • Mauna Kea Recreation Area is a popular rest stop for travelers going across Saddle Road. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Renovated cabins at Mauna Kea Recreation Area. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Mauna Kea Recreation Area is a popular rest stop for travelers going across Saddle Road. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Mauna Kea Recreation Area is a popular stop for travelers going across Saddle Road. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Laurie McGrath, left and Taina Leao of Hilo take a break to play on the equipment at Mauna Kea Recreation Area on their way to Waimea on Monday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Original plans for areas of special reconnaissance training planned by Commander, Naval Special Warfare Group THREE. The navy says it's backing off these plans to hold exercises within Pohakuloa Training Area instead. (courtesy photo)
  • U.S. Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, maneuver to secure a notional enemy position during a live-fire training event on July 13 at Pohakuloa Training Area. ( Lance Cpl. Adam Montera/Special to West Hawaii Today)

HILO — The military has retreated from a plan to conduct special reconnaissance training at the Mauna Kea Recreation Area, where role-playing soldiers armed with guns would try to hide from observers.

A Nov. 6 letter, sent to 38 consulting parties as part of military compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, detailed plans to use the state recreation area, part of which is controlled by Hawaii County. Recipients were given 30 days to respond.

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But the Navy, in an interview Monday with West Hawaii Today, said new plans will keep the training on the grounds of Pohakuloa Training Area.

Plans change, said Kathy Isobe, Environmental Public Affairs officer for commander Navy Region Hawaii and commander Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific. She declined to give details for the change of plans.

“No, the training will not take place at Maunakea State recreation park. Training will be limited to the Pohakuloa Training Area only,” Isobe said.

The letter signed by Navy regional engineer Capt. M.R. Delao detailed the plans for the training mission. They included up to 25 personnel hiking at night up to concealed positions on hillsides above the Mauna Kea Recreation Area buildings, observing military role players within the buildings. The role-players would be mock enemies, carrying real guns armed with blanks, who would remain in position for 24-96 hours.

The activity was planned for 45 nonconsecutive days over two years.

The plan drew opposition from the public, who wrote to officials about their concerns.

“This is an absurd request, completely devoid of any reasonable detail, and it is incumbent upon you to deny this use,” Kailua-Kona resident Michael Reimer said in a letter Tuesday to Maurice Messina, deputy director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation.

“The military has control of the Pohakuloa Training Area of over 133,000 acres just a few miles away, complete with a cantonment area and numerous buildings as part of battle area complexes. That is all the land that they need to conduct this proposed training as described,” Reimer said. “There is no reason to use the Mauna Kea Recreation Area unless there is some undisclosed, nefarious reason to do so.”

The charge against using Mauna Kea Recreation Area was led by Jim Albertini, founder of the Malu Aina Center for nonviolent education and action. One of the 38 consulting parties on the Navy letter, Albertini spread the information far and wide.

Contacted Tuesday, Albertini characterized the decision as a “first step.”

“I know there was a lot of concern. And there’s still a lot of concern,” Albertini said.

The proposal also caused some confusion about where in Mauna Kea Recreation Area the drills were supposed to take place. The land belongs to the state, but the county has jurisdiction over parts of the park through a contract with the state.

Messina said military activity was never intended to take place on the county-managed area of the park. County code bans firearms in public parks.

“No request has come to us to use the cabins or area as far as military exercises,” Messina said Friday.

A state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokeswoman said DLNR’s understanding was that training would involve a state cabin and former bird-holding pens with the recreation area, as well as hidden observers on the hillside that is on forestry land.

The planned exercises, now to be confined to PTA, are similar to military plans for the West Hawaii coast outlined earlier this month.

Training is important in troop readiness, said PTA spokesman Michael Donnelly.

“Pohakuloa Training Area continues to support training year round for all services across the Department of the Defense, and Hawaii Island law enforcement,” Donnelly said. “Planning and coordination of training resources are essential elements to any successful training plan.”

The PTA and Maunakea training are not covered in an environmental assessment U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command has filed to conduct joint special operations training in West Hawaii and elsewhere in the state. That training includes naval as well as Army, Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps special ops forces.

The joint water, land and air-based training will be conducted along part of the South Kohala and North Kohala coasts, approximately from Mahukona in North Kohala to just south of Kawaihae in South Kohala. Training also is planned in North Kona from Kukio Bay to about Waiaha Bay, south of Kailua Bay.

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The EA may be viewed online at https://go.usa.gov/xUnDC (click on Environmental Assessment Open for Public Review at left side of page) and at some public libraries, including the Kailua-Kona Public Library.

Comments may be submitted through Dec. 10 by email to NFPAC-Receive@navy.mil, or by mail to: Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, Attention: Project Manager, EV21.JZ, 258 Makalapa Drive, Ste. 100 Pearl Harbor, HI 96860-3134