Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA)

Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) is located on the island of Hawaii between Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and the Hualalai Volcanic Mountains. It extends up the lower slopes of Maun Kea to approximately 6,800 feet in elevation and to about 9,000 feet on Mauna Loa. The training area is about midway between Hilo, on the east coast and the Army landing site at Kawaihae Harbor. The area is the largest DOD installation in Hawaii.

The training site can be reached from Oahu be either direct military helicopter or fixed wing flights to PTA or by using commercial airlines to either Hilo or Kona. from Hilo or Kona the site is reached by using Saddle Road. The distance is approximately 40 miles to both towns. The Saddle Road is frequently closed to the public due to poor surface conditions caused by storms and heavy military vehicles. In preparation for large scale training exercises at PTA, the ground forces are flown to Hilo and transported over Saddle Road. Supporting equipment and vehicles are transported from Oahu by ship or barge to Kawaihae and driven to the site. A tank trail parallels much of the Saddle Road. These movements involving personnel, equipment and light vehicles could ideally be accomplished by flying directly to PTA; however the 3,700 foot Bradshaw Air Field runway is inadequate to accommodate large transport aircraft such as the Air Force C-141's.

The PTA consists of 108,863 acres, of which 24,048 are leased by the Army from the State of Hawaii. The remaining land is ceded and includes the impact and range areas and a portion of the west maneuver area. The leased areas include the northern maneuver areas and the support complex.

Pohakuloa and much of the land surrounding it is designated a conservation district. This district overlaps both state and privately-owned land and includes the three mountains and the central saddle area. With the exception of PTA, this land is not being used. The lands at low elevations are designated agricultural and are used for cattle grazing. Only a small amount of land, nearest the north coast is being used for sugar cane. The majority of grazing land is privately-owned; however, some state land is leased for this purpose as well. urban areas of Hilo, Kona, and Waimea are the closes developed areas to the training site.

The physiography of Pohakuloa is deceptive in terms of training suitability. Almost the entire site is level or gently sloping, uninhabited, and having few trees or deep gullies to inhibit training. Nevertheless, a large percent of it is almost completely unusable for maneuvers due to the rough lava flows that occur over much of the surface area. There are several geological features within the installation. Cinder cone hills or puu's, products of the latest eruptive activity on Mauna Kea, are found in the northern part of the installation and are surrounded by more recent lava flows from Mauna Loa. These recent flows (less than 200 years) are the most notable features of the central and southern landscape and together with the northern flows cover approximately 30% of the training area. Recent lava flows surround and contrast with islands of vegetation call kipukas. The two types of lava found throughout Hawaii, pahoehoe and 'a'a, are present at PTA as well. The pahoehoe flows have smooth undulating surfaces and can be traversed on foot for short distances. The rough 'a'a, however, are jagged, slag-like piles of impassable material.

A critical habitat exists in the northeastern portion of the site for the endangered Palila bird. This area can be used for limited training with restrictions on numbers of troops and types of weapons firing. Another area to the northwest is presently being investigated for the possible presence of three endangered plant species. Both environmentally sensitive areas would otherwise be excellent for maneuvers. Nine archaeological sties have been forun throughout the training area, of which one large cave is considered suitable for nomination to the National Register. Vegetation throughout the site varies from sparse grassland and low scrub growth to open mamane forests with small shrubs. These areas of vegetation generally coincide with prehistoric lava flows and are the best for troop maneuvers.

As the largest training area in Hawaii, Pohakuloa can be used to accomplish nearly all of the varying types of training required by the military forces. PTA has a 51,000 acre impact area which is over 10 times the size of the one at Schofield Barracks. There are approximately 32,000 acres free of recent lava flows and are considered fully usable for large maneuver exercises. This area is more than twice the 14,000 acres of similar training land on all of Oahu. The impact area is surrounded on the north by several ranges and designated firing points for artillery. A support area of 600 acres containing logistic and administrative facilities plus quarters for approximately 2,000 troops is located to the north at the base of Mauna Kea.

The major restrictions to training at PTA are the presence of the lava flows and environmentally sensitive areas discussed above. Weather conditions are generally conductive for training activities; however, fog often prevents helicopters from using the runway. The use of the area is also restricted by the cost of transporting troops, equipment and vehicles from Oahu. Because of this, Army and Marine Corps exercises are few in number and last for several weeks.

The cantonment area was constructed in April 1955 from World War II prefabricated Quonset huts. The airfield, was constructed in 1956.

Papohaku Ranchland Subdivision is a residential community being developed on a portion of 1500 acres previously set aside for military purposes by a lease agreement in 1944. The site is bordered by Poolau Gulch to the north and Kaunalu Gulch to the south. Further north is Kaluakoi Hotel and Golf Club. West of the site is the town of Maunaloa. The former bombing range is accessible by vehicle along paved Kaluakoi and Pohakuloa Roads, and Kulawai Loop. The site can also be reached by unpaved roads that traverse the site from the south and east, and by boats capable of mooring offshore.

Papohaku Target Range was set aside for military gunnery practice exercises. Improvements constructed on the site included a range control house, as many as three ringed targets, and three concrete observation bunkers. A restricted danger zone was established as a component of the bombing range. It was 6,900 feet wide and extended approximately 3 miles seaward from the shore northwest into the Kaiwa Channel. An ordnance survey was conducted by the present landowner from December 1991 to February 1992 and resulted in an ordnance removal project lasting from 4 May to 8 June 1992. Approximately 14,300 pounds of OE were recovered consisting of MK23 and MK76 practice bombs, MK3 SCARs, MK1 practice rockets, 5-inch HVARs, and 100-lb water or sand filled practice bombs. During the preliminary assessment site visit conducted by the Corps of Engineers in June 1993, 20mm rounds were observed in addition to the practice bombs and rockets.

The Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island may be a volcanic plain, but there are endangered species there, and the Army is mandated to protect them. Within the borders of PTA are 10 plants and nine animals on the endangered species list, more endangered species than on any US Army installation. Feral goats and pigs carry seeds from wild grasses into areas with the protected plants. The grasses burn like tinder in the summer, and take the rare plants with them. So the Army wants to get rid of the animals. Local hunters supplement their dinner tables with game from PTA, and removing the animals would have a significant economic impact. The Big Island has general economic stagnation, which gives weight to their argument. Add to this conflict the discovery of petroglyphs - ancient Hawaiian rock drawings - in areas of PTA that the Army wanted as a multipurpose range complex for armor and foreign military training. The MPRC project was scrapped, at some expense, and military units must tread lightly at PTA.

Bird counters do visual checks for common and rare birds and also identify many by their songs. The most common native birds encountered were amakihi and apapane. In Palila Critical Habitat, a pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl) was seen, but no palila were found. Common non-native birds seen at PTA include Japanese white-eyes, yellow-fronted canaries, and northern mocking birds.

Fencing of a 3,900-acre portion of Kipuka Alala was completed in early 2001. That area is being fenced to protect it from the damaging effects of goats, sheep, and pigs (ungulates) to allow recovery of mamane-naio forest. Recovery of that forest may eventually lead to reintroduction of endangered palila to the Pohakuloa plain. Our U.S. Department of Agriculture workers, Shayne Veriato and Lance Koerte, have established three 3-mile-long marked transects within the area being fenced so that abundance of goats and sheep can be inventoried about twice a month. This data is needed to assess numbers of ungulates in the area for planning of efforts to remove them as the fence in completed. The large size of this fence exclosure will present special problems for the removal of game mammals. The Army is presently trying to get most of the fence-enclosed area cleared of unexploded ordnance so that public hunters can assist in ungulate removal. Unexploded ordnance was also a factor which slowed efforts to remove ungulates from the 1,400-acre Kipuka Kalawamauna fence exclosure in western PTA. However, recent ground sweeps, ordnance clearance, and evaluations by EOD personnel have resulted in reopening of that fenced area for routine access.


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