The sign in the hardpan soil reads, "Danger - Keep Away. Bombs in Land and Water." A picture on the sign depicts a person being electrocuted by a small, submerged submarine. This is one of many notices marking the kapu, or forbidden, zones for the groups of volunteers who come to help restore the decimated Hawaiian island of Kaho'olawe.

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Last year, 36 groups cleared trails, uprooted invasive species and sowed the soil with native plants. This year, the forecast is reduced to 12 volunteer groups due to a funding shortfall that makes the immense task of restoring Kaho'olawe even more difficult than before.

"Kaho'olawe has become a model for people to understand that pieces of land at the edge of ecological devastation can be restored," says Michael Nahoopii, Executive Director of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), a state organization tasked with restoring the island's physical landscape. "People say it is too hard, but what they miss is that this project is not just about restoring the island, but also healing the State of Hawaii and its communities."

Gathered ordnance on KahoolaweKaho’olawe, the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands, is an island interrupted. Once home to native fishing and farming villages, the island's last few centuries have been marked by tribal wars, overgrazing and military assault.

After being used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy from 1941-1993, the island and its surrounding waters were handed into the care of the state and turned into a reserve for native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence practices. By then, the Navy had spent a decade and $344 million to rid the island of its unexploded ordnance (bombs, bullets and shrapnel, some of which is shown at right). It exited in 2003 with only 75 percent of the island's surface cleared, and 33 percent of the subsurface.

Ever since, the KIRC has used a $44 million Kaho'olawe Rehabilitation Trust Fund to carry out environmental restoration and other archaeological and educational activities. The fund ran dry this past year after an additional 13 percent of the island was restored.

Nothing about rehabbing Kaho'olawe is simple. It entails eradicating feral animals, preventing erosion, removing invasive plants, reintroducing native ones and building water catchment systems.

Silt from Kaho'olawe pours into the Pacific Ocean Silt from Kaho'olawe pours into the Pacific Ocean, eroding the island and its habitats. (Photo: Forest and Kim Starr/flickr)

According to the KIRC, erosion causes approximately 1.9 million tons of soil to be deposited into the ocean surrounding Kaho'olawe each year. To help combat the problem, more than 100 acres of native species of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses and herbs have been planted. About 4,000 acres still require restoration.

Most of the KIRC's projects are paid through the trust fund, established when the federal government conveyed the island to the state in 1993. The commission's annual budget was at one point as high as $6 million. Over the last few years, the costs shrank to $2.8 million partly due to improved practices, and a harsh audit in 2013.

But, the fund was destined to run out at some point. Since 2009, the KIRC petitioned the state to help bolster the then dwindling fund. During this past legislative session, Hawaiian lawmakers issued an emergency $1 million to keep KIRC in operation for another two years.

Grass grows in arid land on Kaho'olawe.Some plant life has managed to regain a foothold in Kaho'olawe, but there's still a lot of work to be done. (Photo: Forest and Kim Starr/Wikimedia Commons)

This is not enough, says a declaration by more than 500 environmental scientists who attended the 52nd annual conference of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation in Honolulu in July 2015. They called on the state and the U.S. military to provide a combined $1 billion to get rid of the remaining ordnance, mitigate erosion, remove invasive animals and restore native plants.

"The full biocultural restoration of Kaho'olawe is important not only for Hawaii and native Hawaiians, but as a model for how restoration could be achieved following demilitarization anywhere in the world," the scientists' declaration states.

As of today, the KIRC's 18-person staff will continue working through the rest of the year with a focus on grants and partnerships, wrote KIRC spokesperson Kelly McHugh in an email. As we raise money, we can continue access.

As for the island's future? "The right way is for the State to give money, said McHugh. "The passionate way is for people."

Inset photo of unexploded ordnance: Forest and Kim Starr/flickr

Saving Kaho'olawe, Hawaii's interrupted island
The smallest of the Hawaiian islands has been wrecked by overgrazing and military pollution.