Marines drive amphibious assault vehicles through Nu’upia pond, a wetland and Hawaiian fishpond, to help create bird habitat? “It’s better than a monster-truck rally.”
Posted on: Monday, January 13, 2003
Mud-churning Marines help birds
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
KANE’OHE BAY – Back in the late 1970s, the Marines used to drive their tanklike amphibious vehicles through the Nu’upia Ponds on base to get to the ocean.
Marines drive their amphibious-assault vehicles through Nu’upia Ponds during training. The wetlands on the Marine Corps base in Kane’ohe are home to about 50 species of birds, including the endangered Hawaiian stilt. William Cole • The Honolulu Advertiser
But that created a problem: Birds liked to nest in the organism-rich mud churned up by the vehicles’ tank treads in the salty coastal wetlands.
“They called Fish and Wildlife and said, ‘Hey, can you move the birds?’ ” recalls Diane Drigot, senior natural resources manager for Marine Corps Base Hawai’i.
But what could have become a confrontation instead turned into a solution, and one of the more unique environmental partnerships within the U.S. military.
Once a year, Marines of the amphibious-assault vehicle platoon from Combat Support Co., 3rd Marine Regiment, get to churn up the mud of the 482-acre wetlands to their hearts’ content.
The vehicles flatten invasive pickleweed that threaten to choke off the ponds, and create the same kind of mud mounds that nesting birds found to their liking in the 1970s.
Drigot said over the past 200 years, Hawai’i has lost about one-third of the wetlands that once covered 20,000 acres.
“Eighty percent of wetlands left on the island of O’ahu are on this side of the island, and most of them are right here at Nu’upia Ponds,” Drigot said.
In the past 21 years, with help from the Marine Corps, the ponds – part of a wildlife management area – have become home or a stopover spot for 50 different species of birds.
Among them is the endangered Hawaiian stilt.
In 1980 and 1981, only about 60 of the birds lived in the wetlands.
“Now, we have about 130 birds that call Nu’upia Ponds their home,” Drigot said. “Without the help of these 26-ton vehicles, they wouldn’t have any home here at all because of these weeds that have moved in.”
At a time when military training areas are increasingly coming under fire from environmentalists, the Nu’upia Ponds program has become a poster child for the type of partnership that can exist.
This year it will be featured in just that way – on a national Marine Corps conservation effort poster.
On the Marine Corps side, the AAV platoon of 16 vehicles gets training driving in the mud and in recovery operations when they get stuck.
The vehicles used at Nu’upia Ponds help to flatten invasive pickleweed; if not for the Marine drive-throughs, “you’d have pickleweed up to your waist,” said one official. William Cole • The Honolulu Advertiser
Plus, it’s fun.
“It’s awesome. It’s better than a monster-truck rally – you can actually do it yourself,” said Sgt. Jared Genco, 22, an AAV driver. “No matter how bad of an off-road machine you might get – an SUV, whatever, it will never go through stuff like this.”
That “stuff like this” is knee-deep mud and water.
The AAVs, armed with .50-caliber machine guns and 40 mm grenade launchers and capable of carrying up to 20 combat-ready Marines, made quick work of pickleweed control last week during two days of training.
The outings are timed to precede the March and April breeding season for stilts.
“Basically, the idea is you’re going in a crisscross pattern, and just covering all the ground that you can,” said 2nd Lt. Houston Evans, 24, the AAV platoon commander.
“(The Marines) have told me in a lot of places in Hawai’i they have to do very controlled training and stick to a straight line and make sure they don’t damage anything because Marines care about the sensitive environment,” Drigot said. “But right here, we let them go full throttle and have a little more fun, because that helps the environment.”
Evans calls the mud the most challenging land environment to drive in. In the ocean, the tank treads aren’t used; water jets push the AAV along.
“Just driving along the road or swimming in the ocean – that’s a completely different environment (than the wetlands),” Evans said.
The AAVs get to drive up to 15 mph through Nu’upia Ponds. Top speed on land is about 45 mph.
These days, the Marines bypass the wetlands to reach the ocean for training.
The once-a-year opportunity in the ponds is all the Marines get.
“We’d like to do it more,” Evans said.
Of the 482 acres, about one-third is covered in pickleweed, which was brought to Hawai’i from Argentina, Drigot said.
“It’s just taken over Hawai’i’s habitat for these birds,” she said.
The stilts live on bugs, crustaceans and little fish, and use mud mounds surrounded by water moats to lay their eggs.
“If we didn’t do this operation, you’d have pickleweed up to your waist,” Drigot said.
Endangered Hawaiian ducks, black-crowned night heron and golden plover can be found at Nu’upia Ponds, which is a bird spotters’ paradise.
During training last week, Drigot spotted a rare pair of Caspian terns.
“Without the help of the (amphibious-assault vehicle) platoon here at Marine Corps Base Hawai’i, the birds would have gone away a long time ago,” Drigot said.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com or 525-5459.