Kaua‘i schoolchildren visit PMRF to do ‘good for the land’ while celebrating Earth Day

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Students divided into Team Honu and Team Mōlī collecting trash at Waiokapua Bay. Photo Courtesy: MC1 Louis Lea, PMRF

Over 100 Kaua‘i schoolchildren competed to collect trash from a West Side beach last Friday, during annual Earth Day festivities held at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands.

“We broke them into Team Honu (turtle) and Team Mōlī (Laysan albatross) and removed a lot of debris and netting,” said PMRF Installation Environmental Program Director Jessi Hallman Behnke. “The kids were real fired up.”

In total, the students from ʻEleʻele, Kekaha, St. Theresa and Kalāhelo elementary schools – with help from chaperones and PMRF sailors and personnel – gathered 208 pounds of debris from the beach surrounding Waiokapua Bay, also known as Major’s Bay.

Groups of students then cycled between “stations” operated by PMRF and other groups, such as the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources; the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources; Hoʻomalu Ke Kai; the County of Kaua‘i; the Kaua‘i Invasive Species Committee; Kaunalewa; Nā Maka Onaona; PMRF Crash Fire; PMRF Meteorology; Save Our Shearwaters; The Nature Conservancy; USDA Wildlife Services; and Zero Waste Kaua‘i.


At each station, students learned about conservation and environmental efforts taking place throughout the Garden Isle. Some groups performed demonstrations: PMRF’s meteorology team created a cloud using liquid nitrogen, and others introduced specially trained canines.

These included an award-winning Wildlife Services dog named Sweep, who is trained to “haze,” or safely move, endangered Hawaiian geese from the PMRF airfield.

“The working dog on base is trained to protect nēnē from aircraft … We didn’t come up with the idea, but we are one of the first installations to use it,” said Hallman Behnke.

  • Award-winning working dog Sweep and a handler demonstrate ‘hazing’ nēnē. Photo Courtesy: MC2 Bodie Estep, PMRF
  • PMRF’s meteorology team excited students by making a cloud with liquid nitrogen. Photo Courtesy: MC1 Louis Lea, PMRF
  • An official weigh-in revealed 208 pounds of debris were removed from the beach at Waiokapua Bay. Photo Courtesy: MC2 Bodie Estep, PMRF
  • Over 100 schoolchildren visited PMRF for the base’s 2024 Earth Day event on April 26. Photo Courtesy: MC1 Louis Lea, PMRF

Ocean conservation organization Ho‘omalu Ke Kai helped students use a spectrometer to sort the plastic they had removed from Waiokapua Bay that morning. The nonprofit operates specialty machines capable of processing certain plastics into “upcycled” products.


“We’ll upcycle it into longer-term items like construction materials for building our next beach cleanup stations, and maybe even benches for bus stops in the near future,” said Ho‘omalu Ke Kai Director of Operations Tim Leichliter. “Ho‘omalu also partnered with the County of Kaua‘i Solid Waste and Recycling Division and the Division of Aquatic Resources to show the lifecycle of plastic … It was such a fun day with the next generation of the West Side.”

Earth Day – now an international affair – has been held every April since 1970, when US Sen. Gaylord Nelson and activist Denis Hayes organized the inaugural event. Some adults present on Friday remembered Earth Day events from their own childhoods.

“Earth Day is important to me because it’s the reason I became a biologist. I grew up, born and raised in Kekaha, and I went to Saint Teresa School with community organizations highlighting Earth Day,” said Darrian Muraoka, a USDA predator control specialist at PMRF. “It really helped me to see the broader scheme of things when I was growing up, and that encouraged me to become a biologist.”

Hallman Behnke noted PMRF’s 2024 Earth Day event featured a return to tradition – “It was the first year in many years that we brought the event back to Waiokapua Bay” – and change, as well.


“It was a really great event with a strong cultural component,” she said. “We had more partner organizations representing cultural practices this year than in past years.”

Hallman Behnke has many responsibilities as installation environmental program director. She ensures PMRF is in compliance with federal regulations and manages endangered species populations found within the base’s seven-mile stretch of beach, like nesting honu, Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian hoary bats and many plant species.

From left: The Division of Aquatic Resources’ Tim Leichliter and Aaron Swink demonstrate the lifecycle of plastic. Photo Courtesy: MC2 Bodie Estep, PMRF

Other duties include climate resilience initiatives, preservation of cultural resources and cultural practices, and work with the Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program, which provides grants to community projects. But Earth Day may count as a highlight in Hallman Behnke’s career.

“Everybody dedicates their time to make sure that we get that opportunity to connect with the kids. I’ve done a lot of outreach in the external community, but we don’t have a lot of opportunities like this, where we have multiple schools together on one day to come together and do something good for the land,” she said. “I’m really excited about it, and it was great that the leadership of PMRF were there for the whole event.”

Capt. Brett Stevenson, commanding officer of PMRF, delivered opening remarks on Friday.

“One of my most important responsibilities here as the commanding officer is to ensure that we preserve and protect the environment and the habitat for all of the animals that we share the Mānā plain with,” he said. “We’re thrilled to work with our partner organizations from across Kaua‘i, as well as schools and the local community, to get them excited about their environment and bring them together with sailors and the workforce of PMRF to be able to celebrate Earth Day 2024.”

Scott Yunker
Scott Yunker is a journalist living on Kauaʻi. His work for community newspapers has earned him awards and inclusion in the 2020 anthology "Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter."
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