Polihale Beach, Kauai,including Nohili (Barking Sands) and the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
Image: courtesy [globalsecurity.com]

The “war on terror” has taken a bite out of beach access on Kauai, where the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) has kept five miles of westside shoreline off-limits since Sept. 11, 2001.

PMRF officials won’t give a specific reason for the continued closure of the sandy stretch that runs from Kekaha to Polihale, or explain why they’ve restricted access more tightly than have military bases elsewhere in the Islands. (On Oahu, the only change prompted by 9/11 has occurred at the Marine Corps Base’s Pyramid Rock Beach, which used to be open on Sundays, but is now closed.)

“As a matter of policy, we will not discuss specifics related to security requirements,” wrote Petty Officer Jay C. Pugh, PMRF’s deputy public affairs officer, in an e-mail. “We will not comment on, or offer comparison to, the specifics of other installations’ shoreline policies, but will state that PMRF’s mission and capabilities are not like other shoreline installations.”

And though beaches in Hawaii are public to the highest seasonal wash of the waves, neither the state Department of Defense nor Department of Land and Natural Resources “has jurisdiction for that stretch of land,” according to a DLNR spokeswoman.

When the Navy initially closed the entire seven-mile stretch of beach in the wake of 9/11, “we fought real hard to get our access back,” said Greg Holzman, a westside surfer and fisherman. Following massive turnouts at several community meetings, the Navy reopened one mile of beach in 2003 and another in 2008. It also implemented a recreational pass system that allows daytime access to some popular surf and fishing spots through entry points on the base, provided users pay a $25 fee and undergo a criminal background check with Kauai police. Some 1,000 passes have been issued.

But Holzman remains concerned about closure of Nohili Point, the only clean water reef on the westside and a spot prized for fishing for kala, nenue and palani, and collecting salt. “The Native Hawaiians need access to that area. Even if it’s just one weekend a month, it would be better than nothing,” Holzman said.

Jose Bulatao, a Kekaha community leader, said he has heard Hawaiian fishermen grumbling about restricted access. “They never even had a chance to discuss it with the Navy and DOD,” he said.

Citing “the plantation mentality that still lives on this side of the island,” where the base is a major employer, Holzman said he thinks many people have given up hope that the shoreline will be reopened. “When the boss says no, you don’t push it,” said Holzman, who continues to press for improved access to Rifle Range, a surf spot the late Andy Irons considered one of the five best in the world.

In his e-mail, Pugh wrote that the base has reviewed its policy several times since 2001, and “there are no current plans to provide lateral access to the entire shoreline of PMRF.”

The Navy contends that the natural environment has benefitted from the closure. Fish counts conducted in 2000 and 2006 confirmed “a quantifiable improvement in the average size, population and diversity of recreational and commercial species in the waters immediately off-shore in those areas closed to public access,” Pugh wrote. Green turtles are again nesting on the sand, he added, beach vegetation is thriving and “iwi kupuna burial grounds and Nohili are not disturbed by off-road vehicles or camping activities.”

But Dr. Carl Berg, a Kauai marine biologist, expressed skepticism. “If we accept his argument, then what would be best for the environment, fish stocks, turtles, aquatic life and birds is for them to stop all military activities and removal all personnel. With no base there we would increase our security, because no one would want to invade or attack the empty sand dunes. It has been over five years since the last environmental survey and a lot of ‘exercises’ and missile launches have occurred since then. You shouldn’t draw a trendline with just two points. I would like a new survey, done by different environmental consultants, to assess the current status of the marine ecosystem off PMRF.”