DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
Chapters:Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11IntroductionCase StudiesAcknowledgements
Chapter 8 Case Studies

Landscape Disturbance: MCB Hawai'i

Ho'ola I Ka Aina: Restoring Health to the Land

Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i (mcbh) is situated on the island of O'ahu in the Hawaiian islands—the most isolated land mass in the world, with a unique natural and cultural resources heritage and over 25 percent of US endangered species. mcbh itself is a place of uncommon beauty, rich biological diversity, numerous Native Hawaiian sites and military structures of national historic significance. The Marine Corps in Hawai‘i controls about four thousand acres on O'ahu, with three primary properties on the island's windward side, within the Ko'olaupoko District. This district comprises an almost idealized tropical landscape of mountain peaks, coastal wetlands, three bays, offshore fringing reefs, and eleven catchments or watersheds. At the time of European contact (1770s), Hawai‘i's original Polynesian settlers had transformed this region into one of the most biologically rich and productive in the islands. It was well populated and a favored gathering place for local chiefs. The Hawaiians channeled and recycled water as it flowed down mountain streams, through agricultural fields and fishponds, to support a large human population.

By contrast, today this region is populated by diverse urban to rural, ethnically mixed to Native Hawaiian, relatively affluent to low income communities. Flooding, nonpoint pollution, invasive alien vegetation encroachment, and urban development have divorced people from the land, contributed to loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat, and increased non-point pollution. Many coastal fishponds and wetlands here, whose “goods and services” once included their sponge-like capacity to absorb water and filter pollutants are now filled in, clogged with excess nutrients, alien vegetation, and sediment. This degrades their natural capacity to absorb floodwaters and filter nonpoint pollution from surface runoff. mcbh properties in this region are affected by these trends as much as their civilian neighbors. Public concern about the environment here is strong and focuses on a regional scale to restore watershed health.

This reflects a nationwide enhanced public awareness that watersheds are useful units of analysis for approaching solutions to many environmental problems. Many watershed-scale solutions are supported through plans, regulations, and cooperative agreements. The State of Hawai‘i has ranked the Ko'olaupoko region as “priority one” for watershed restoration attention under the National Clean Water Action Plan.

Of primary concern to this region is how nonpoint pollution, increased sedimentation, and excess freshwater in stormwater runoff from impervious urban surfaces often flows unimpeded through straightened stream corridors and concrete- lined channels into the sea, closing beaches, causing sediment plumes, and threatening health of human communities and marine life. In Ko'olaupoko's offshore environment, where Marines train, aquatic wildlife are the “canary in the mine” with respect to showing symptoms of the problem. We see increased numbers of seabirds and marine mammals and reptiles ingesting plastics or tangled in marine debris. We see tumors on our turtles (Hawaiian green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, a listed threatened species). While the exact cause still eludes scientists, evidence implicates polluted stormwater runoff as a key contributor to algal and bacterial blooms in our coastal waters, releasing biotoxins that suppress marine animal immune systems, thus promoting the growth of abnormal tissue such as the debilitating tumors. Hawai‘i's freshwater aquatic species are increasingly at risk due to nonpoint pollution impacts concentrated in offshore coastal areas. Of the nine migratory aquatic fauna in Hawai‘i that use whole stream channels (endemic species of snails and gobies), only one is currently listed as threatened (Newcomb's snail, Erina newcombi), but the others are listed as species of concern and are believed to be largely extirpated from the island of O'ahu due to habitat modifications such as hardened stream channels and increased temperature of water in largely urbanized stream corridors. All four species of Hawai‘i's listed endangered waterbirds also depend upon healthy coastal riparian stream and wetland habitats for foraging and nesting opportunities. Fortunately, the Ko'olaupoko District contains 1,656 acres, or 82 percent of the island's remaining protected wetland habitat (with mcbh being a primary host of suitable healthy wetland waterbird habitat, used extensively by waterbirds and other protected species of shorebirds and seabirds in this region).

An Innovative Solution

In this biologically rich but stressed Ko'olaupoko watershed region, our mcbh natural resources management program has made considerable investment in watershed health restoration projects involving civilian-military cooperation to improve prospects for delisting endangered waterbirds and protecting other native species at risk, while also enhancing military training opportunities. We measure success not so much by numbers of species recovered or by numbers of environmental restrictions removed from military training operations, but by such criteria as number of successful collaborative management actions undertaken that result in a “win-win” benefit to military training, endangered species recovery, and improved quality of life.

Another mcbh case study in this guide details how over twenty-five years, mcbh has combined combat training with waterbird habitat restoration and has united military and civilian volunteers in countless weed removal service projects to restore mcbh wetlands and build sustained community support. In addition to those actions, mcbh has played a leadership role in working collaboratively with the community to help solve stormwater management problems described above on a watershed scale. Examples follow:

Accomplishments, Results, and Positive Publicity

  • In 2001, mcbh completed a $400,000 demonstration watershed restoration project which engaged over one thousand community volunteers to create three native plant riparian (streamside) gardens along channelized storm drain corridors on mcbh properties. We hosted multiple “walk the watershed” events to demonstrate nonpoint source pollution best management practices and develop a regional vision of improved watershed health. University of Hawai‘i credits and tuition waivers were granted to 16 local elementary school teachers who, with their students, assisted mcbh natural resources staff in planning, installing, and maintaining demonstration garden plots as part of a graduate-level watershed health course they completed. (The course was funded by the Marine Corps and designed and taught by this author, who is a pro-bono affiliate faculty member of the University). Investing in Hawai‘i's teachers (who pass on this knowledge to countless children) results in a more sustained, collective community awareness of watershed restoration possibilities. One participating teacher from mcbh's on-baseMokapu elementary school composed a song celebrating mcbh's Mokapu watershed. A hula was choreographed to dance with the song and performed by all the students in a school-wide assembly. Since then, hundreds of students, military families, retirees, civic and business groups have used these gardens for watershed education, cultural awareness, academic credit, and environmental service activities. A community-based web site hosts news about mcbh activities as part of a region-wide emphasis on watershed health restoration (
  • Another part of mcbh's watershed project was to produce displays, maps, and technical reports assessing watershed conditions and possibilities in the region based on inputs from some of the nation's foremost watershed scientists (e.g., the late Luna Leopold and colleagues) as well as indigenous and local knowledge from the surrounding community. This built upon information already compiled in our 1998 mcbh Mokapu Watershed Health Manual (https://www.denix.osd. mil), which is still accessed by teachers and community groups.
  • In 2004, a $300,000 project was completed that resulted in successful renovation of three half-acre stormwater retention basins/wetlands/endangered bird habitats on mcbh's Klipper Golf Course. It included sediment/weed removal, installation of native plants, solar-powered aerators, an interpretive sign, and construction monitoring (before, during, and after construction) of endangered bird activity and native plant reestablishment in these improved wetland basins. Delightfully unexpected increased waterbird use was noted right away. Reduced pond flooding and maintenance were noted by the golf course greens managers. Lessons learned were documented in a University of Hawai‘i natural resources student master's thesis and shared on a 2005 Navy calendar distributed nationwide by Currents, the Navy's environmental magazine.
  • In 2006, a $900,000 project replaced a dysfunctional, weed-choked drainage ditch/wetland (about one acre in size) with a deepened and expanded wetland, about twice the size, and lined it with native plants, following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's best management practices guidelines for storm water management. This improved stormwater retention basin was developed in an area draining surface stormwater runoff from a combat vehicle maintenance compound that previously had been plagued with chronic flooding due to the clogged ditch that it replaced. The project proved its value right away during a heavy rain period shortly after excavation was completed when the adjacent compound did not flood. Also, systematic observations since then have documented expanded endangered waterbird and migratory waterfowl use of the area.
  • In 2007, excavation is under way for a $900,000 construction project to realign part of the mcbh Kaneohe Bay's central stream corridor (Mokapu Central Drainage Channel) which is connected to the sensitive Nu'upia Ponds endangered species wetland habitat and coral-rich Kane'ohe Bay. This project will replace three acres of weed-choked “fill” land along the stream corridor with a meandering, terraced, native plant-lined “pocket wetland” to better contain floodwaters, filter stormwater runoff, restore historic habitat for native avian and aquatic life, enhance scenery, and produce recreational benefits (scenic view, jogging paths), and an early Hawaiian “sense of place.” A similar project is being designed for the Marine Corps Training Area–Bellows along a weed-clogged portion of Waimanalo stream. This project will help restore watershed health to a stream designated as “significantly impaired” by the State of Hawai‘i, while also designing opportunities for more realistic military training in the area.
  • An overarching goal in all of these watershed improvement efforts has been for people to re-attach to the landscape and each other, and positively view these straightened stream corridors as living, breathing resources needing care and attention, instead of as mere drainage ditches. It was one of 30 national watershed success stories posted on US Environmental Protection Agency (epa)'s website:


While these wetland and watershed improvement projects are being completed on a relatively small, island scale, their demonstration value far exceeds their size, mainly due to the collaborative involvement of the public—both military and civilian—in their execution. Building a collaborative vision of restored ecosystem health possibilities through educational projects, demonstration native plant riparian gardens, and volunteer military/civilian weed pulling projects has been an essential ingredient in the success of these efforts, contributing not only to improved environmental quality, but also to public support for the Marines' continuing presence in host communities. As a Society for Ecological Restoration board chair once said:

“Ecological restoration is as much about people as it is about nature. For many, the most exciting thing about restoration is its potential to radically alter our ability to restore a healthy sense of community . . . A healthy human community helps us to restore both people and nature. An unhealthy human community hinders our efforts to improve our ecological and social lives” (George Gann, cited in SER Newsletter [Vol. 12, No. 1, February 1999]).

Further Reading

Drigot, Diane. C. “Restoring Watershed Health: Peacetime Military Contributions and Federalwide Agency Implications,” Federal Facilities Environmental Journal, Autumn 2000, pp. 71–86.On line at:

Kamehameha Schools Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate, Life in Early Hawai‘i: The Ahupua'a (Honolulu: Kamehamea School Press, 1994 isbn 0-87336-016-8).

Wilcox, B., E. Guinther, et al.,Mokapu: Manual for Watershed Health and Water Quality (Prepared for mcbh under contract to Geo InSight Int'l., Inc., 1998).Also available online at

City/County of Honolulu, Ko'olaupoko Sustainabl eCommunities Plan (Honolulu: Dept. of Planning and Permitting, August 2000)

National Research Council, New Strategies for America's Watersheds (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999), isbn 0-309-06417-1.

Davidson, Osha Gray. Fire in theTurtle House, the Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean (New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, 2001), isbn 1-58648-000-6.

© Copyright 2008. NatureServe.

About This Case Study's Author
By Diane Drigot, Ph.D.
Senior Natural Resources
Management Specialist
Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i
Kaneohe Bay, Hawai‘i
Phone: 808-257-6920 x 224 (DSN 457)

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