Stop the helicopter training on Mauna Kea

The Honolulu Star Advertiser article  “Delay in copter-training permit will cost $8 million, Army says” talks about the environmental assessment for army High-Altitude Mountainous Environment Training. (HAMET) for helicopters.  But why is it assumed that the army should naturally be allowed to encroach into ecologically and culturally sensitive areas on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to train for an illegal war in Afghanistan?   As Bianka Isaki commented on Facebook, the headline should be “Army stupidly insists on wasting $8m of taxpayer contributions on a project that cannot comply with natural resource use regulations”. Others have pointed out that the Colorado high altitude training area is the proper place to conduct such training.  But the army complains about the cost of having to train in Colorado while completing a state environmental review of the project:

The Army wants to use landing zones on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa for high-altitude helicopter pilot training. A Black Hawk medevac helicopter from Wheeler Army Airfield was used in April as the Army conducted noise and ground-effects testing on Hawaii island.

The Army, which is completing a third environmental review for high-altitude helicopter training on Hawaii island, said it will have to spend $8 million to conduct most of the training in Colorado because it is running out of time to practice in Hawaii before a January deployment to Afghanistan.

[…]

The Army hopes to get state Land Board approval in September to be able to conduct high-altitude training on six landing zones on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in October before it has to ship its nearly 100 helicopters to Afghanistan in November, officials said.

Ninety pilots out of 260 would be trained in Hawaii if the state grants a “right of entry” permit for the conservation district land, according to the Army.

[…]

Opponents say the helicopter training will interfere with critical habitat for endangered species and is an affront to the sacredness of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

The latest draft environmental assessment for the Hawaii island training, released on July 23 and intended to cover both federal and state requirements, has a 30-day public comment period ending Aug. 23.

As expected, the army spokesperson cited the helicopter shot down by Taliban fighters as the need for the training:

Col. Mike Donnelly, a spokesman for U.S. Army Pacific, said the deaths of 30 Americans in a Chinook helicopter crash Saturday in Afghanistan “is a stark reminder of how important training is and the inherent risks of flying a helicopter in a combat zone.”

These troops would not have died, and this training would not be needed if the U.S. were not occupying Afghanistan.

Native Hawaiians are not happy about the military occupying and desecrating Hawaiian sacred sites:

But Hanalei Fergerstrom, a Big Island resident who opposes the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa training, said that, as a Hawaiian religious practitioner, “I’m not happy with the Army telling me they are going to fly helicopters in my temple.”

The army already controls more than 120,000 acres at Pohakuloa.  Although the army is not acquiring new land, it is effectively extending its activities over a vast areas beyond their existing lands.  Military activities are encroaching on protected areas.  The state correctly required the army to conduct a more thorough state environmental review:

The latest problem faced by the Army in securing a permit stemmed from a state Attorney General opinion — detailed in a June 20 letter from Gov. Neil Abercrombie to Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, head of the Army in the Pacific — that the Army needed to complete a state environmental assessment for the training in addition to the federal studies it already conducted.

Wiercinski said recently that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources couldn’t continue to provide individual special-use permits to the Army as it did in years past. “I understand that, because people will always take you to court on a waiver, and then everything stops,” Wiercinski said. “If you don’t do it right, it just keeps getting messed up.”

The Army now wants flights from Bradshaw Army Airfield at Pohakuloa Training Area to six existing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa landing zones.

[…]

The Sierra Club’s Moku Loa Group said helicopters will fly over the only designated critical habitant for the endangered palila bird, a finch-billed Hawaiian honeycreeper.

The Army said in its latest report that a 2,000-foot altitude has been established to protect the palila and its habitat from planned operations.

Cory Harden, a Hawaii island Sierra Club board member, said she is sympathetic to the greater cost and time away from families with high-altitude training in Colorado, “but I’m also concerned about the impacts (on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa).”

“I share the concerns about the endangered species and the impacts to cultural practitioners and hikers,” she said. “That’s a beautiful peaceful place up there, and you have more helicopters going in and out. It destroys it.”

Given the past history of violations of conservation zones by the army, mitigation measures will be meaningless without effective oversight and enforcement.

The army seeks a permit for a Right of Entry via Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife Special Use PermitComments are due on August 21, 2011.   See KAHEA posts  here and here for more information.  Send comments to:

United States Army Garrison, Hawai’i (USAG-HI), 851 Wright Avenue, Wheeler Army Airfield, Schofield Barracks, Hawai’i 96857-5000. Contact: Mr. William Rogers (808) 656- 3075

AND

Portage, 1075 S. Utah Ave., Suite 200, Idaho Falls, ID 83402. (208) 419-4176

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