It was the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, only a few years after Hawai‘i was declared a state, when the John A. Burns Freeway was envisioned. Otherwise known as Interstate H-3, the freeway was conceived as a federal project to facilitate the expansion of American military in the Pacific, championed by the new state’s powerful and revered WWII veteran, Senator Daniel Inouye. According to its proponents, the H-3 was necessary to alleviate traffic, and to connect Pearl Harbor military bases at the southern center of the island to the Kāne‘ohe Marine Corps Base on the east side of the island, should a third world war require an expedited movement of troops and equipment.
Interstate H-3 (something of a misnomer—highways on islands are inherently intrastate) was, prior to the ongoing Honolulu rail transit project, the largest public works project in the history of the archipelago.
“We thought that was going to be the last major earthwork project on O‘ahu, that this was the time to document what was happening,” says Kapulani Landgraf, who was a student at Windward Community College at the time of the H-3’s creation.
In 1989, she began hiking to the construction area from the windward side to take pictures with a large-format camera.
“We had no way of stopping it,” she says. “It felt like nobody did.” Soon, she discovered that her photography instructor, Mark Hamasaki, was also documenting the developments.
Together, student and teacher lugged tripods and camera equipment through mud and construction sites to photograph the massive project. In 2016, the duo published Ē Luku Wale Ē: Devastation Upon Devastation, a book that contains 125 of their photographs. “Luku wale” translates as “vandalism, useless slaughter or destruction, to destroy thus.”
Unlike the road-building programs in New York City during the same era, this interstate project was successfully opposed in court. In 1970, President Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which enjoined the federal government to create lengthy environmental impact statements regarding the highway, effectively stopping construction.
For years, Native Hawaiian and environmental groups used the statements to delay the construction of the highway by challenging environmental violations.
As activists won in the courts, rich landowners also fought its development the old-fashioned way: The Damon family, who had inherited most of the land in Moanalua Valley, through which the H-3 was originally to be routed, lobbied the Nixon administration aggressively. Because of this, the H-3 instead cut through neighboring Hālawa Valley.
For decades, activists, academics, environmentalists, landowners, and residents of O‘ahu fought the H-3’s construction. Few residents thought it wise, as there were routes already in place from the east side of the island to central Honolulu in the south; it would also level portions of O‘ahu’s remaining forests, where endangered native birds sang.
And for a time, it appeared the highway would be scrapped.
Then, in 1986, Senator Inouye maneuvered an unprecedented federal exemption that allowed construction of the H-3 to skirt environmental laws as a rider on the Department of Defense budget. The monolithic highway would cut through Hālawa Valley, the Ko‘olau Range, and Ha‘ikū Valley on the opposite side before winding its way down into Kāne‘ohe.
In 1989, crews began blasting through the Ko‘olau mountains. Over the course of eight years, Piliāmoʻo* documented scenes following construction across portions of the H-3’s route.
“Our main entry point was Haiku Access Road, and we got access by talking with the construction workers,” Landgraf says. As a team, Hamasaki and Landgraf took the moniker Piliāmo‘o, loosely translated as “clinging lizard.”
Their images were taken on Sundays, when the workers had gone home, leaving a desolate, destructive scene behind. In one series, a hole in the side of a mountain dilates to create a massive, multi-lane expanse.
Piliāmo‘o photographed the demolition of a complex, terraced, irrigation farming system once used to produce sweet potato and a variety of other staples of the Polynesian diet. (Historians say these centuries-old wetland terraces were the largest and oldest on O‘ahu, and had been abandoned during the massive depopulation that occurred due to disease from first contact with outsiders.)
The duo captured images of Hālawa Valley when it was still an intact native forest where endemic birds flitted among koa and ‘ōhi‘a trees.
Piliāmo‘o also documented heiau (temples) and funerary mounds, some of which were obliterated by construction. (The location of the sites that were not destroyed remain undisclosed in the book.)
Obscured by the forest for centuries, banana farmers had known of these structures for decades and often intentionally avoided cultivating near them for fear of being cursed. Inouye charged Bishop Museum with performing the historical and archaeological research for the H-3. To Landgraf, the federally funded research created a conflict of interest.
The museum’s preliminary archaeological assessment in 1970 stated that “no archaeological sites exist in the proposed highway corridor that should be saved,” effectively green-lighting the project.
This year, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the H-3. At a cost of $80 million per mile—totaling $1.3 billion—the project remains one of the world’s most expensive highways ever built.
Landgraf’s and Hamasaki’s images remind of the potential toll of public works projects. Ē Luku Wale Ē takes the form of a kanikau, a Hawaiian funerary chant, which was ubiquitous in Hawaiian language newspapers at the end of the 19th century.
Each section is written in untranslated Hawaiian, an act of linguistic resistance.
Since the building of the H-3, the O‘ahu ‘alauahio, an endangered, endemic honeycreeper, last documented in Hālawa Valley in 1985, has been presumed extinct.
The forest under the H-3’s route is now overrun by albizia, an invasive tree species.
While O‘ahu traffic grows worse, the city contends with a ballooning rail transit system that is predicted to go at least $5 billion over budget and a decade over its initial timeline, echoing the problems of the H-3.
The freeway remains a shadowy monument where the occasional motorist zooms through sun-soaked ridge lines and opulent valleys.
“People drive on it and think it’s beautiful, but really, what is underneath?” Landgraf wonders aloud. “This is what I’ve been learning: This is the erasure of history. When people see a structure, they assume that it has been there forever, with no concept of what existed before.”
Ē Luku Wale Ē is available for purchase at Nā Mea Hawai‘i or through the Hawai‘i Council of the Humanities.
*The print version of this article left the kahako out of Piliāmo‘o.