Friday, February 5, 1999

OHA has a problem
with Navy using Niihau
as launch site

By Anthony Sommer


BARKING SANDS, Kauai -- A freshly signed agreement between the Hawaii state historic preservation office and the U.S. Navy over the use of Niihau as a launch site for military missile tests has come under fire from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The agreement requires a third signature from the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. An official of that agency said yesterday the pact will not be OK'd until OHA's complaints are answered.

"We have a problem," said Lee Keatinge. "I've made the Navy's Historic Preservation Office aware of it and I'm waiting for a reply."

The stakes are high, both for the Navy and Kauai.

The Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility has been chosen as the primary test site for the Theater Ballistic Missile Defense system, the Pentagon's number one priority new weapons development. President Bill Clinton recently called for massive additional funding for the program.

Located at Barking Sands on the island's westernmost point, the missile range is one of Kauai's largest employers, and the test program is seen as a guarantee of the base's continuation.

The goal of the $5 billion Theater Ballistic Missile Defense program is to develop a ship-mounted missile that can protect a fleet at sea or troops ashore from enemy rockets. The Navy plans to use an improved version of its Standard missile and hopes to have a system operating by 2005.

The ability to use Niihau as one of the sites for launching target missiles and tracking and guiding their flights is a key component of the testing program.

The Navy has said it can go ahead with testing without Niihau, but it will be unable to conduct all the experiments required without use of the island.

Last week, both the state and the Navy signed a memorandum of understanding calling for ethnographic studies of any areas that could be affected by the missile tests, including Niihau. The document was forwarded to the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation district office in Denver.

OHA is contending the state and Navy did not invite agency officials to the table when the agreement was being negotiated and that seeking OHA's input after the pact has been signed is illegal.

"Our major problem is that there is a federal law covering the process they were supposed to use and they didn't follow it," said OHA environmental planner Lynn Lee.

"The environmental and cultural interests of Native Hawaiians have to be taken into account," said Ryan Mielke, OHA public information officer. "That's a requirement of the Historic Preservation Act that has not been met."

The President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation does not have the power to void the agreement between the state and the Navy, Keatinge said. But it is required to listen to objections from interested groups such as OHA and "comment" on them and make recommendations.

Niihau has been owned by the Robinson Family of Kauai for more than 130 years and operated as a cattle ranch. Native Hawaiian males on the island have worked for generations as ranch hands but the cattle operation has been steadily declining. Visits by outsiders have been rare and it is known as "The Forbidden Island."

The Navy already has a radar facility on Niihau and the Robinsons have offered sites for missile launchers, tracking stations, a runway and sites to launch instrument-laden tethered balloons. In exchange, members and Niihau residents would receive jobs and the Robinsons would be paid for transporting workers and equipment to and from the island.

Family spokesman Keith Robinson said he hasn't seen the agreement but has been led to believe it is basically the same as all the previous drafts.

"It says the Navy can't do anything unless the state approves and that's just not acceptable to us," Robinson said.

Despite repeated assurances in the agreement that any information gathered by archaeologists will be kept confidential, the Robinsons repeatedly have objected to the State Historic Preservation Office being allowed to conduct extensive studies.

Robinson said their fear is that, if any artifacts are found, militant native Hawaiian groups will claim a right to come to Niihau and camp on their private property without permission. The sites the Navy wants have been surveyed and are free of historic artifacts, he said, and the family does not want the state digging beyond them.

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