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Hawaii Gov.Josh Green speaks at a news conference in Honolulu on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. The U.S. military and Hawaii officials said Friday the Air Force has returned 363 acres it leased on Molokai Island to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, opening the possibility Native Hawaiians could move onto the land.

Hawaii Gov.Josh Green speaks at a news conference in Honolulu on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. The U.S. military and Hawaii officials said Friday the Air Force has returned 363 acres it leased on Molokai Island to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, opening the possibility Native Hawaiians could move onto the land. (Audrey McAvoy/AP)

HONOLULU — The U.S. military and Hawaii officials said Friday the Air Force has returned 363 acres it leased on Molokai Island to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, opening the possibility Native Hawaiians could move onto the land.

The department administers lands under a century-old U.S. law that allows Native Hawaiians with at least 50% Hawaiian blood quantum to apply for a 99-year lease for $1 a year.

But Hawaii has been slow to award leases to Native Hawaiians. An estimated 28,000 people are on the waitlist for lots, some of whom have been waiting for decades. The need for lots has grown increasingly acute as rising real estate prices have made it more difficult for many in Hawaii to buy homes.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 was created to boost economic self-sufficiency among Hawaiians.

State Sen. Lynn DeCoite said at a joint news conference hosted by Gov. Josh Green that the land the military is returning is a great area for grazing cattle. DeCoite is a Democrat who represents Molokai, a mostly rural island.

Ikaika Anderson, the chairperson of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, said most people on the waitlist for leases on islands other than Oahu want agricultural or pastoral leases and not residential ones, so there should be demand to use it for pasture.

Anderson plans to visit the property with DeCoite on Saturday.

Air Force Col. Michal Holliday said the U.S. government has used the Molokai parcel since the Federal Aviation Administration leased it in 1960s. It was initially used to support telecommunications for the Apollo program.

The Air Force took over the lease in 1981 and used the land as a high frequency receiver for radio communications. In 2007, the Air Force determined it didn't need the land anymore, and began preparing to clean it up and return it. The lease expired on Dec. 31.

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Mark Hashimoto, mobilization assistant to the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said the military has completed "an exhaustive and comprehensive clean up" approved by the state Department of Health and the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

When asked when Native Hawaiians would be able to move onto the land, Anderson said his department first must consult those eligible to apply for leases because they know best what the lands could be used for.

"It would be premature for the Hawaiian Homes Commission to do anything prior to consulting with our beneficiaries on Molokai and the people they elected to represent them," Anderson said.

Green said he was looking for other lands the military could return to Hawaii.

"We are reaching out constantly to to our military ohana in the islands to find out ways that we can better use land because we want to build housing and provide agricultural opportunities," Green said, while using the Hawaiian word for family.

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