UPDATED 12 p.m. — 11/23/10

Of the dozens of positions Governor-elect Neil Abercrombie will be filling in coming weeks and months, few are more important than the post atop the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

While the department’s annual operating budget of about $100 million [pdf] is small compared to some other government agencies [pdf], the DLNR is responsible for nearly 2 million acres of conservation land — about half the state.

Lingle appointee Laura Thielen is currently the department’s chair and oversees divisions for Aquatic Resources; Boating and Ocean Recreation; Resource Enforcement; Engineering; Conveyances; Forestry and Wildlife; Historic Preservation; Land; Conservation and Coastal Lands; and State Parks.

Thielen’s tenure has highlighted some of the issues any DLNR chief is going to face.

Lawmakers slashed funding, handicapping the department’s ability to fulfill some of its duties. Thielen’s proposal to charge user fees to generate revenue for the department didn’t gain traction in the Hawaii Legislature. Due to budget troubles, the department was unable to maintain some of its park facilities, requiring volunteers to chip in labor and materials in some cases.

And the National Park Service criticized the Historic Preservation Division for failing to meet obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act, calling the state a “high risk grantee.” There were high-profile fights with Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and environmental conservationists across the state.

Civil Beat asked a number of land use and environmental experts to list the traits they think would be valuable for someone appointed to run DLNR and to identify whom they would like to see get the job. Civil Beat granted the people anonymity because they wouldn’t speak on the record because they’ll have to work with whoever is appointed. All made clear that they were not speaking for the Abercrombie administration and had no direct knowledge of the transition office’s thinking.

Many experts agreed that the ability to work with the Legislature would be an asset. Some mentioned the name of former Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, who lost in his bid to be lieutenant governor and has done little to discourage supporters from advocating for his appointment. Sitting Sens. Clayton Hee, a longtime Abercrombie ally, and Russell Kokubun, chair of the Senate Committee on Water and Land, could be asked to join the administration. Hooser (Kauai) and Kokubun (Big Island) have both represented neighbor islands, an experience that some said would be valuable.

Some sources said Abercombie might be interested in promoting someone from within DLNR. They mentioned Waianae Small Boat Harbormaster William Aila, a Democratic governor candidate in 2006, and recently appointed DLNR Deputy Director of Water Resources Jonathan Scheuer as potential candidates. Former Office of Environmental Quality Control Director Gary Gill, who was Gov. Ben Cayetano’s deputy director of health for the environment, also has government experience, one source said.1

Others suggested that an understanding of the law would help a DLNR chief succeed. Some recommended attorney Lea Hong, director of the Hawaiian Islands Program for the Trust for Public Lands. One offered the name of William Tam, an attorney with the firm of Alston, Hunt, Floyd and Ing who was previously a deputy attorney general for 15 years and counseled both the Board of Land and Natural Resources and Commission on Water Resources Management.

Of the potential appointees contacted by Civil Beat, all either declined to discuss the issue on the record or did not return calls and e-mails.

More than 2,000 applicants have applied for jobs in the Abercrombie administration, though it’s not clear how many of those are for DLNR director.

The transition team is mum on its progress as it seeks to fill many posts.

  1. Jonathan Scheuer’s appointment as DLNR Deputy Director of Water Resources was deferred by the Water Commission at its September meeting. Environment Hawaii reported in its November issue that commissioners said they want to wait for direction from the new gubernatorial administration.

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