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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Army needs to make case for Makua plan

The Wai'anae community in particular and the state in general need a clearer understanding of what the Army has in mind for Makua Valley, in the near and short term.

It's been more than a decade since the type of training conducted in Makua Military Reservation, at the far reaches of West O'ahu, first set off legal disputes between the Army and community and environmental groups. The gulf between the two sides still hasn't been bridged, so it's clear the Army still has work to do to make the case for the latest variation of its training plan.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, has restated plans to return to live-fire training in Makua in March. But in an interview with Advertiser military writer William Cole, he also outlined a plan to move that training to Pohakuloa on the Big Island and shift the use of Makua toward training soldiers to cope with convoy fighting and roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices.

It's easy to understand why the Army wants to boost this kind of training, given the toll the IEDs have taken on soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the notion that roads snaking through the valley simulate what troops encounter in battle seems logical.

But so much about the plan is still murky, and considering the proximity of residences and the sensitivities about the Hawaiian cultural sites and native species at risk, clarity is essential.

The Army owes the community a series of face-to-face meetings where residents of the area can get their questions answered and it should happen early in the planning process.

For example, the Army describes an IED training facility at Makua that would involve constructing mock "villages" for gunfights, and yet maintains this use would pose less harm to the environment and cultural sites than the live-fire, heavy-artillery training the community has fought for so long. How can impact be reduced this way?

Opponents still insist that the Army's studies did not adequately test the threats to subsurface archaeological artifacts and marine life. Federal court has upheld that view, and further challenges are likely should live-fire training resume.

But even if the Army does restart live-fire exercises at Makua, officials haven't explained why it should take an estimated five to 10 years to make the transition to Pohakuloa. A much more definite and reasonable timetable is needed.

Army officials have described Makua as "uniquely suited" to this next-generation kind of training. The neighbors in close proximity to the noise and fire risk of training some of them living as close as three miles away should be told the reasoning behind that choice.