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Hawaii Gov. David Ige has appointed Suzanne Case to head the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, ending weeks of speculation.
The governor withdrew his previous nominee, Carleton Ching, three weeks ago amid mounting public opposition over his ties to developers and lack of experience for a job that requires leading a department comprised of 10 divisions and nearly 900 employees.
The Senate must confirm the appointment. With Ching, it became clear that the support wasn’t there and the appointment was rescinded moments before lawmakers were set to vote March 18.
Case will be, well, a different case entirely.
Ching was a longtime lobbyist for land development companies, most recently Castle & Cooke, whereas Case has spent the past 14 years as director of The Nature Conservancy Hawaii, a leading environmental nonprofit that has worked to protect more than 200,000 acres statewide.
“I promise to bring to this opportunity the best of my experience of nearly 30 years in law and management with the Nature Conservancy, working to malama our lands and waters that sustain us all,” Case said.
“I’ve done this in Hawaii and around the Pacific and the western United States and I want to bring this experience to this job,” she said. “That’s a lot of experience relying on both western science and traditional knowledge, public and private partnerships and collaboration, and a non-confrontational approach.”
Case is well-connected through her environmental relationships around the world and through her own family.
She’s the sister of former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, now chief legal officer of Outrigger Enterprises Group, and the cousin of AOL co-founder Stephen Case, who is a majority shareholder of Maui Land & Pineapple and owns some 38,000 acres of former sugar plantation land on Kauai.
“I step up to this service with the deep aloha for Hawaii’s lands and waters and history and culture that I carry in my heart from my own upbringing on Hawaii island and on Oahu and the generations of my family preceding me here,” she said.
Case said the work she has been doing with the Nature Conservancy is closely aligned with the mission of DLNR but acknowledged that her new job, if she’s confirmed, will be a bigger responsibility.
The DLNR oversees aquatic resources, boating and recreation, conservation and coastal lands, forestry and wildlife, historic preservation and state lands, including public parks. In all, the department manages 23,000 acres of inland streams, 3 million acres of near-shore ocean waters, 410,000 acres of coral reef and 2 million acres of conservation land.
Sen. Laura Thielen, former head of DLNR under Gov. Linda Lingle and current chair of the Senate Water and Land Committee, called the new nominee an “excellent” choice.
The Water and Land Committee, which makes a formal recommendation as to how the full Senate should vote on the DLNR appointee, rejected Ching in a 5-2 vote after a two-day, occasionally contentious hearing at the Capitol.
Thielen and other members of the committee said Tuesday that Case — the opposite of Ching in many ways — will likely sail through the confirmation process, expected to begin next week. Thielen said the confirmation ideally needs to be completed by April 20 when joint House-Senate panels meet in conference committee to finalize bills before session ends May 7.
“Ms. Case has a foot in the business world as well as the longstanding work that she’s done in the conservation world so I think she balances those two different spectrums and is going to do a phenomenal job as chair of DLNR with hopefully the full support of the Senate,” Thielen said.
“What I always respected David Ige for when he was in the Senate is his ability to listen to people and to take the information that people had given him and then to think that through,” she said. “I really appreciate the governor for being able to take all the information that he got and to come forward with such a wonderful nominee.”
The governor is learning from the Ching case in other ways too.
Instead of announcing the appointment of Case via a news release on a Friday afternoon as he did for Ching, Ige held a press conference Tuesday morning in the ceremonial room at the governor’s office with Case at his side — ready to explain why he believes she’s the right person for the job and answer questions from reporters.
Case, who was asked to fill the Cabinet post, said she wants DLNR to fill key vacancies and argue for additional resources in every division.
“We need to have the right expertise in the right categories,” she said.
Case said she would look forward to working with the DLNR staff, including Kekoa Kaluhiwa, whom the Senate unanimously confirmed Monday as deputy director of DLNR.
“I really do need to step up here,” she said. “I step up to this service with the deep aloha for Hawaii’s lands and waters.”
Case, who met with Thielen just moments after the press conference ended, said she looks forward to meeting with Senate leadership for their consideration of her nomination.
“She’s a very thoughtful person, very considerate and measured person,” Thielen said. “But very committed, obviously, to the importance of conservation. So I think she will bring a lot of expertise to the role.”
The Board of Land and Natural Resources, one of the state’s most powerful boards, oversees the department. The DLNR director also chairs the board.
Ige said Case shares his vision of “wise stewardship of Hawaii’s public and conservation lands and waters, for excellence in government to make the most of our limited resources, and for collaboration and inclusion in carrying out the many responsibilities of the DLNR.”