LAHAINA - Native Hawaiians, lineal de-scendants and concerned islanders attended a public meeting hosted by the County of Maui and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) last week Thursday at Lahaina Civic Center.
Its purpose was to collect comments and receive testimony about the Draft Integrated Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed Mokuhinia Ecosystem Restoration Project located in Lahaina Town at the south end of the Historic District in the 500 block of Front Street on the mauka side.
"Historically, Loko o Mokuhinia was an approximately 17-acre pond, one in a series of coastal wetlands along the shoreline of West Maui. Loko o Mokuhinia is cited in Hawaiian mo'olelo (traditions) as the home of the mo'o akua (lizard goddess), Kihawahine, who was the tutelary deity to the Maui royal family line that gave rise to King Kamehameha III," the meeting announcement read.
The freshwater, spring-fed pond surrounded the sacred sanctuary of the Hawaiian ali'i, Moku'ula. It served as a political and spiritual center from ancient times through the emergence of the Maui kingdom, the unification of the islands under Kamehameha, the introduction of Christianity and the period when Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii (1837-45).
The site was abandoned in the late 19th century, buried under fill in the early 1900s and left undisturbed for nearly a century.
The Friends of Moku'ula (FOM), a local nonprofit, has been dedicated to its restoration since its establishment in 1995.
Part of the FOM mission statement reads: "To educate the Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian community on the significance of historical sites in a non-exploitive environment; to initiate the process of restoring, protecting and preserving historically significant sites, including the Hawaiian island and pond at Lahaina known as Moku'ula and Mokuhinia."
Moku'ula and Mokuhinia are forever intertwined in Hawaii history: "The future is in our past," the FOM tag line states.
The restoration of the wetland ecosystem is one component of a larger undertaking to preserve and restore the overall site.
Army Corps representative Athline Clark presented a power point project overview. Dawn Chang facilitated the meeting, and Zeke Kalua of the Mayor's Office was also seated at the front table.
Noticeably absent from the panel of presenters was the Friends of Moku'ula (FOM), casting a veil of doubt over the proceedings and leading to questions about whether the culture was taken out of the preservation project.
Further, as an afterthought well into the meeting, Blossom Feiteira was introduced as the new FOM executive director.
"Blossom, why aren't you up at that table?" Rose Marie Duey asked. "Historically, FOM has been trying to do this, to put back Mokuhinia and Moku'ula, because it's our cultural site.
"FOM should be at your table," Duey asserted, "that would help us, as Hawaiians, to know that its being done for us."
"I do not support your plan, because you did not include us as Hawaiians and FOM," she advised.
Community leader Mahina Martin "was part of the original staff when FOM opened in 1998," she stated.
"I would like to see the lineal descendants be put in the forefront. Beyond the lineal descendants, the organization FOM should also be at the table," she testified
Attendees learned from Clark's presentation the ACOE purpose of the ecosystem restoration project.
"When we get into the feasibility stage," Clark said, "we're looking more specifically at whether or not we can justify this site in terms of does it justify future federal dollars? Is it a place that meets one of the Corps' main mission areas or objectives? Is there a willing local sponsor? Does the site provide benefits; and, in the case of an ecosystem restoration project, what that specifically means is that we have to design a site that provides ecosystem function for endangered water birds; and, in this case, we're talking specifically about coots and stilts."
"As part of that (feasibility study process), we also had to look at what will it take, what are the biological and habitat needs of the stilts and the coots; because we have to design the site for their biological needs," Clark said.
Federal money is dependent on the coots and the stilts.
"If you (the community) decide you want to restore for another authority or for another purpose, that's fine; it's just that we would not then continue to be part of the process. We can only do it if it's habitat for endangered species," Clark added.
Duey was stunned.
"I am against this project, because it's for the birds," she declared, pun intended.
What happened to the culture?
Archeologist Dr. Janet Six worked the site for over two years.
"This is not a wetland restoration in a natural environment; this is a cultural environment in a sacred spot," she advised.
Additionally, there were concerns voiced about the county taking over the maintenance of the wetland when the ACOE leaves.
"The county and state are famous for not maintaining anything. Look at Ukumehame Beach Park for a prime example; it is in a sad, sad state," John Duey noted.
"I am not in favor of this, because they cannot maintain it, period," he concluded.
Wayne Cochran echoed the same sentiments: "What's going to happen? Who's going to maintain it. Good point, John Duey, that the county has a hard time maintaining stuff."
Foster Ampong's statement "for the record" was generally descriptive of the gathering's reaction to the proceedings. "I support the restoration of Loko o Mokuhinia with reservations," he said.
The meeting facilitator deftly observed, "Obviously, there's a lot more conversation that needs to be had. Obviously, there's a lot more talk story that needs to go on."
Keeaumoku Kapu urged others to red flag Sept. 23, the deadline for submitting written comments about the Draft Integrated Feasibility Report and EA to the County of Maui and ACOE.
Hard copies of the report and EA are available at Lahaina, Kahului and Wailuku Public Library. Electronic copies are posted at the Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC) Environmental Bulletin (Aug. 23 edition) and through the project website at www.mokuhiniaproject.com.
"If at the end of the day," Clark stipulated, "the community and the county decides that what we have proposed conceptually isn't what they want, that's okay. We would not be involved any longer in the process, but you still have everything you've done up-to-date."
Next week, details about the project's logistics will be published in the second of a series on this topic.