Keeping Hawaii beautiful: Environment Department helps preserve nature, historic heritage
By Cpl. James A. Sauter
| Marine Corps Base Hawaii | March 29, 2013
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII --
Looking more than 600 years into the past during the 15th century, the majority of historians and scholars would give their studious attention to the major concerns and events of the age. Europe transitioned from the Late Medieval period into the early Renaissance, Western explorers searched for a faster trade route to the exotic Far East, the Chinese emperor oversaw the construction of the Forbidden City and the Aztec and Incan Empires reached the peak of their influence in Mesoamerica and the Andean mountain range.
Capt. Derek George
Cpl. James A. Sauter
Environment Compliance and Protection Department
Marine Corps Base Hawaii
Mokapu burial grounds
On the other side of the world in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, native Hawaiian fishermen set up the earliest known fishing camps along the Mokapu Peninsula’s coastline. They built walled fishponds and practiced aquaculture to cultivate a steady harvest of fish for food. Archaeologists estimated about 150 people inhabited the peninsula, and for nearly 400 years they buried their dead in the sand dunes along the peninsula’s northern shore.
As the world entered the 21st century, the Mokapu Peninsula had seen a dramatic change in appearance since British naval Capt. James Cook landed on the island of Kauai and became the first European to visit the “Sandwich Islands” in 1778. The peninsula is presently known as Marine Corps Base Hawaii and is home to approximately 16,000 service members, military civilian employees and their families.
The U.S. military maintained a presence on the peninsula for more than a century from the earliest coastal defenses built by the U.S. Army in response to World War I and the construction of Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay in 1938 in anticipation of World War II. Since then, early construction unintentionally disturbed some of the burial sites.
Charged with the task of preserving the historic and cultural heritage on the base, as well as maintaining the natural ecosystem, MCB Hawaii’s Environmental Compliance and Protection Department and its staff work chronically to meet the balance between ecological conservation and Marine Corps training.
“As a whole, the environment department mission is to meet compliance with federal and state laws and Marine Corps orders while meeting our training requirements and coexisting with the natural environment,” said Capt. Derek George, director of the environment department and native of Portsmouth, Va. “We want to preserve the natural and historic cultural heritage here on the base.”
The department includes roughly 20 programs that cover specific areas, such as cultural heritage conservation, environment management and restoration, wildlife conservation, household chemical disposal, pollution prevention, water quality management and recycle and solid waste.
These programs are used to enforce the laws and orders passed by the federal and state governments and the Marine Corps. The department goes to great lengths to ensure they’re enforced; otherwise, a violation could stop projects and training.
“The staff of professionals here work constantly to keep in compliance with the laws and keeping with continuous dialogue with the local community,” George said. “The department’s cultural resource series does a lot of consultations with the native Hawaiians here on the island because of the base’s significant history.”
The cultural resource series is responsible for preserving both the archaeological sites on the base, such as the Mokapu burial grounds, in addition to the architectural sites, such as Hangar 101 of the base’s air station, which was bombed seven minutes prior to the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
June Cleghorn, the senior cultural resource manager of the environment department’s archaeological series, explained that certain parts of the base are categorized by their likelihood to have artifact remains. Cleghorn said several findings have been made while preserving the Nuupia fishponds on the base.
“Besides being a wildlife preservation, these ponds were built by the Hawaiians 600 years ago,” Cleghorn said. “We want to protect the ponds and the remnants of the people who lived during that time. The archaeological data shows they probably came here initially to cultivate marine resources for food.”
Over the years, several areas around the base were discovered to be locations for primarily fishing and agriculture. As the population grew, ceremonial structures and shrines were built. The sand dunes along the northern shore were utilized as a burial site. During the buildup of the base in response to World War II, sand from the beaches was used during the construction of new buildings. Unfortunately, some of the burials were accidentally desecrated.
The environment department now works to preserve the remaining sites by educating the public to stay away from the dunes and not removing any sand from the beaches. Signs can be found at the beaches giving details on what the public cannot do on the beach for the sake of protecting the heritage the native Hawaiians hold to be sacred.
One of the other satisfactions the cultural resource team has is finding artifacts from different eras of the base in addition to the human remains. In 2011, an operation range clearance was conducted to clear the Kaneohe Base Range Training Facility of debris.
According to the Ralph Scott, the base range safety officer, a lot of World War II aircraft parts were buried at the range and were surfacing. The environment department was involved to help remove the finds. The team salvaged 17 weapons, including .50-caliber machine guns, of which eight were in good condition to be put on display. One machine gun is currently on display at Operations and Training in building 216 across from Dewey Square. The department handles many projects, striving for one goal especially.
“The personnel here are the utmost professionals in what they do, and they help to facilitate the training here on the base while at the same time keep Hawaii beautiful,” George said.