The Okinawa woodpecker, a special national treasure, could be excused for thinking the United States had declared war on it.
The bird’s only habitat in the world is the subtropical evergreen broad-leaf forest here, called Yanbaru, on the northern end of Okinawa’s main island.
Unfortunately for the woodpecker, the pristine forest is now home to six U.S. military helipads that cater for the infamously ear-popping Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft after four were completed in December.
Ospreys use each helipad 420 times a year, according to a U.S. military report.
The woodpecker is not the only animal or plant at risk, but it is the one most in danger. The species is named on the Environment Ministry’s Red List as critically endangered.
The Japanese government has no jurisdiction over the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area, used for anti-guerilla warfare drills and which comprises a 3,500-hectare portion of Yanbaru.
The forest is home to 97 species of “rare animals” including the woodpecker and 109 species of “rare plants,” according to a 2007 report by the Defense Ministry, which oversaw the construction project.
The big questions are: How are Yanbaru’s species faring and has the Japanese government exhausted all measures to protect the Okinawa woodpecker?
Shinichi Hanawa, a representative of a local conservation group, the Okinawa environmental network, is worried that the U.S. military’s increasing presence is taking a toll on the indigenous animals and plants.
“I fear that Okinawa woodpeckers may have already been affected as Osprey fly over even during mating season,” said Hanawa, who has studied the woodpeckers’ habitat in the training area in the past. “It will be no surprise if one day all of the birds and other animal species disappear after they edge toward extinction.”
Two of the helipads were completed in 2014 close to the Takae community of Higashi, a village that co-hosts the training area with the village of Kunigami. The four completed in December were also situated near Takae.
The Defense Ministry’s local bureau conducted a series of studies from 1999 to assess the environmental impact of the planned helipad project on the woodland and its wildlife species and to select sites for the helipads. Of 11 candidate areas, four were picked to build the helipads, which are 75 meters in diameter.
The report mentioned that in addition to the woodpecker, the Okinawa rail, the Ryukyu robin and the Okinawa black-breasted leaf turtle–all designated as national treasures–as well as Ishikawa’s frog and Anderson’s crocodile newt–species named under the law on conservation of endangered species of wild fauna and flora–were sighted in the forest surrounding the planned helipads.
The Environment Ministry’s study in the 1990s put the population of the woodpeckers at 400.
The birds were spotted most often in the plot called the G district, which hosts the easternmost helipad, according to the Defense Ministry report.
It also mentioned that other species peculiar to Yanbaru are more often seen in the G district than other areas that were considered for helipad construction and called for more to be done to protect them.
Still, the G district was selected because the U.S. military issued a “strong request” for it to be built in that portion of the forest, according to the report.
The U.S. military wanted the helipad built there as it is near the mouth of the Ukagawa river, which was handed to the Americans in 1998. The transfer was in exchange for the return to Japan of property in another part of Okinawa that was being used by U.S. forces.
In addition, the Defense Ministry went back on its earlier plan to “minimize the impact on animals” by building the additional four helipads one by one.
Instead, the construction on all four began simultaneously last summer to “complete the project as soon as possible” and the ministry ignored opposition from the prefectural government.
Other government ministries and agencies took the position that the project would not jeopardize the habitat of the threatened or endangered species.
A permit from the head of the Cultural Affairs Agency is required concerning actions that could imperil the habitat and preservation of a special national treasure species under the law on protection of cultural properties.
But the agency decided a permit was not required for the helipad project.
“It does not violate the law as long as Okinawa woodpeckers are not killed or injured,” said an agency official.
Under the law on the conservation of endangered species of wild fauna and flora, an area needs to be designated to preserve a habitat for endangered species.
But doing so is difficult as the Japanese government has no authority within the U.S. military’s training area.
Penalties are basically applied only when offenders intentionally capture, kill or injure species listed for protection under the law.
With regard to Okinawa woodpeckers living in the helipad area, officials at the Cultural Affairs Agency and the Environment Ministry said the birds will flee elsewhere and will not be killed or injured.
But conservationists say the building of the helipads will have lasting consequences.
“The species and their habitat are inseparable,” said Tsutomu Kanaizuka, a representative of the Conservation Network for Forest Ecosystem in Japan. “If their habitat is destroyed, it is inevitable that those living there will be affected.”
About 30,000 trees were cut down in Yanbaru in the course of constructing the helipads and roads leading to them, according to a report by the Forestry Agency’s Okinawa branch.
Local environmental groups say at least 3,000 10-ton truckloads of gravel were also used in the construction.