U.S. Army Secretary tours Pōhakuloa Training Area on Big Island
The U.S. Secretary of the Army, with an entourage of military personnel and a U.S. Congressman in tow, on Monday toured the rugged terrain at the Pōhakuloa Training Area where soldiers prepare for potential combat with high-powered weapons.
But one stop at the U.S. Army Garrison was at a greenhouse the size of a three-car garage. Inside, nearly two dozen threatened and endangered plant species are growing. Civilian employees explained the base’s conservation efforts to protect native Hawaiian plants and animals, including the state bird the nēnē, which are found on the 23,000 acres the military leases from the state.
Christine E. Wormuth, the country’s first female Secretary of the Army, was in awe of the thriving plants, conceding, “I donʻt have a green thumb.”
But she said: “This greenhouse is a great example of our partnership. We have to take care of endangered species and to help be good stewards of the land and the water and wildlife here.”
It was Wormuth’s first trip to Pōhakuloa, which is located at just over 6,000 feet above sea level between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea along the Saddle Road region of Hawaiʻi Island. She said she came for three reasons:
- She wanted to see the barracks and housing conditions of the soldiers and their families.
- She wanted to see the condition of the base’s general infrastructure, which includes water storage tanks, training equipment, ammunition supply point, maneuver areas, water pipelines, the electric grid and the wastewater treatment facility.
- And, she wanted to assess the importance of the training area, whose 65-year lease agreement with the State of Hawai’i is set to expire in 2029.
“I want to understand what’s at stake here,” Wormuth said.
The 53-year-old was dressed in all black with a purple jacket. She is a civilian who was appointed to the high-ranking position by President Biden in 2021. She is responsible for the Armyʻs manpower, personnel, reserve affairs, installations, environmental issues, weapon systems, equipment acquisition, communications and financial management. She answers to the Secretary of Defense.
Wormuth’s visit comes after state agencies criticized the military following its release of a draft environmental impact statement last year regarding its proposed retention of the 23,000 acres, which it leased from the state in 1964 for just a dollar. Click here to read the documents.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources responded to the report stating that as it was written it didn’t comply with the conservation district designation.
The Army has also been criticized for its live-fire training and the wildfire risk it poses to the protected landscape. The last reported brush fire that ignited on the training range was in August. Between the training range and state lands, at least 25,000 acres was scorched.
When asked about the fire hazard caused by base activity, Wormuth deferred to Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin, the base’s commander.
He said during live-fire training sessions, weather is evaluated every hour to determine the risk of a fire. In proactive measures, Cronin said the Army installs fuel breaks and fire breaks regularly. Additionally, the Army will increase agricultural grazing on the land in an effort to reduce the fuel load.
Cronin said the base is open to fire training for state and county agencies as well as the community. He said: “As far as wildfires go, we’re a team of teams here. We’re all in this together.”
Wormuth is working with senior leaders at the base and others to evaluate how the Army will move forward on a lease renewal with the State of Hawaiʻi, describing Pōhakuloa Training Area as “the center of gravity” for the Army in the Pacific.
“The shear size of the PTA range, the complexity of the terrain it offers, the different elevation it offers — for us it’s a tremendously important asset for realistic training and combined arms training where we can bring together maneuver units, aviation and live-fire opportunities,” Wormuth said. “We want to work with the State of Hawaiʻi to find a solution that makes sense.
“This training range is really, really important to us but we also understand the value of the land to Hawaiʻi citizens, to native Hawaiians and we want to come to a solution that makes sense for all of the parties.”
Cronin told Wormuth the training area is critical to the readiness of the nation’s service members throughout the armed services who are assigned to the region.
“Service members and units come to Pōhakuloa Training Area to get the most realistic training possible, and they leave here more ready and prepared,” Cronin said. “This not only makes a difference from an individual perspective, but also contributes to our security posture in the Indo-Pacific region.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who represents Hawaiʻi, joined the tour with Wormuth. He said he appreciated the Secretary of the Army coming to the base.
“When you get the top leadership in our military coming here to actually feel the importance of a place, that’s invaluable,” Case said. “I think she got a feel for that.”
Case said Pōhakuloa is the most critical training area for the U.S. military really between the mainland and Asia: “That importance is only going to go up as we deal with the geo-political challenges of our time.”
When he looks at the military presence on the Big Island and in the future, Case said he thinks of partnership and stewardship.
“We want our military to continue to be partners in the present and future of Hawaiʻi,” he said. “And, we obviously want them to take care of what they are loaned for our country’s national defense.”
Case is on the subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies — and he is on three Natural Resources subcommittees.
Cronin and other military personnel also escorted Wormuth on a tour of the barracks. In 2022, 20 new barracks were built at the base as part of the first phase to replace the roughly 100 1950s-era Quonset huts.
The old housing is crammed with bunkbeds with worn mattresses, and the window are small that keep the inside dark. In comparison, the new barracks are bright inside.
Wormuth said she could see for herself the need for the Army to upgrade the infrastructure at the base, not just the barracks, but also the below ground infrastructure including water pipelines, the electric grid and waste water facility.
The military personnel emphasized the need to connect with the local community.
Gen. Charles Flynn, the U.S. Army Pacific Commanding General, said Col. Cronin does a good job leading in that area.
“It’s really helpful for us to listen to the community and Kevin does a great job with his team here to listen,” Flynn said. “Really, I think this is about having a conversation with the community, make sure we are meeting the needs and that we’re not overstepping in some of the areas that we can be accused of and that we’re respectful of what they seek to maintain on the ʻāina and keep it connected to the people and the water and the lands.”