KUNIGAMI, Okinawa Prefecture--As a pristine subtropical jungle with endemic species of flora and fauna, Yanbaru in Okinawa Prefecture would seem to have everything going for it to gain World Natural Heritage status.
Except for the proximity of the U.S. military's anti-guerrilla warfare training.
That sums up the dilemma facing the government as it strives to win listing for the forest in 2018.
As part of those efforts, the government designated the vast area of dark green chinquapin and other evergreen, broad-leaved trees on the northern tip of Okinawa's main island as a national park in September.
But how to reconcile the jungle warfare exercises at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Northern Training Area with visitors tramping through the forest?
The U.S. military's imprint is unmistakable. In places, areas are gauged out of the thick forest floor to serve as helipads for use by tilt-rotor Ospreys and other U.S. military helicopters. Each helipad has a diameter of 75 meters.
At ground level, these brown "holes" are only noticeable from up close. But from the air, they are an eyesore.
Six landing pads are at the foot of 503-meter-high Mount Yonahadake and Mount Iyudake, a 446-meter peak to the southwest, near the central part of the planned World Natural Heritage site. Two of them were completed in 2014.
Four others were finished in December after work began in summer in preparation for more intensive U.S. military drills at those sites.
Yanbaru is part of the government’s “Amami-Ryukyu region” bid. The government plans to submit its application in February in the hope of securing the nation’s fifth World Natural Heritage site.
The other islands nominated are nearby Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture, and Iriomotejima in Okinawa Prefecture.
Yanbaru separated from the Asian land mass around 1.7 million years ago. Its isolation gave rise to a variety of indigenous species, including the Okinawa woodpecker and Okinawa spinous country rat.
To achieve World Natural Heritage registration, the government will need to show that the nominated area has “outstanding universal value.”
It will certainly be questioned about the impact of the training area and drills with Ospreys on the indigenous species as well as the forest's ecosystem in general.
Of particular concern is the Okinawa woodpecker. Many of the birds are believed to roost in the Northern Training Area.
Kuniharu Miyagi, professor emeritus of animal ecology at Okinawa International University, is concerned about the repercussions of helipad construction on local plants and animals.
“The Northern Training Area is situated in a section that is very rich in nature that truly symbolizes the Yanbaru forest,” Miyagi, who also chairs the Okinawa prefectural board of environmental assessment, said before the completion of the helipads. “The construction work itself could have a severe impact on the Okinawa woodpecker and other local creatures.”
He also frets about non-native species gaining a foothold in the forest if they hitch a ride with U.S. military personnel flying in for drills.
A survey by the board of the two helipads in 2015 confirmed the existence of varieties named on the Environment Ministry’s list of invasive alien species, including the creeping daisy, which is native to Central America.
When the government applies, it must exclude the Northern Training Area from the nominated property because it has no jurisdiction over U.S. military installations.
A 5,217-hectare portion of the Yanbaru forest is covered in the government’s nomination. The training area occupies about 3,500 hectares next to it. Until December, when the U.S. military returned some of the land to Japan, the training area was twice as big.
Exclusion of the U.S. training area is likely to prove to be a huge obstacle in Japan’s endeavor.
“Compared with Japan’s past bids, it will be extremely difficult,” said Masahito Yoshida, a professor of World Heritage studies at University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Yoshida helped evaluate candidate sites in other countries as a former member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an advisory body that makes recommendations to the World Heritage Committee based on its on-site surveys.
One of the crucial points in evaluating whether a candidate site is worthy of World Natural Heritage recognition is the “integrity” of the nominated area.
“The IUCN may point out that the Northern Training Area should be included from a viewpoint of integrity,” he said. “In addition, the IUCN may ask the government how it intends to protect species living in the training area.”
In the course of past World Natural Heritage registrations, the government had to enlarge the scope of a national park or set up a buffer zone outside the nominated area following the IUCN evaluations.
Akimichi Matsunaga, assistant director for the World Natural Heritage of the Environment Ministry’s Environment Bureau of Natural Conservation, stressed that the government has an enviable track record of trying to conserve indigenous species in Yanbaru.
This was a reference to the government’s joint effort with U.S. forces to eradicate the mongoose, which is on the list of invasive alien species, for more than 10 years.
Mongooses were first brought to Okinawa in 1910 to prey on "habu" poisonous snakes and rats.
“The training area is not completely separated from the nominated zone,” Matsunaga said. “The government’s efforts may not be sufficient, but we would like to explain to the IUCN that we have managed the forest in an integrated manner with the training area as an adjacent zone.”
Still, conservationist Masayuki Gonda is skeptical about the government’s commitment, saying it has yet to do all that it can to preserve the forest and its inhabitants. He heads the World Wildlife Fund's efforts to preserve the natural environment of the Nansei island chain off Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures.
“Not even a buffer zone exists between the area that should come under strict conservation and the training area used by the U.S. military,” he said. “The wholeness of the local ecosystem is in tatters, making it impossible to conserve and manage it.”