The state agency in charge of restoring the island of Kahoolawe, a former bombing range off the coast of Maui, is scrambling for money in the wake of unsuccessful lobbying this past legislative session.

Mike Naho‘opi‘i, executive director of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, said the agency is planning to lay off half of its 18-member staff and cut its operations by the end of next month because it only received $2 million from the Legislature to operate over the next two years, about a third of what the agency requested.

The agency’s annual budget has been about $2.8 million per fiscal year, which includes operating a base camp on the deserted island, funding environmental restoration projects on land and in the ocean, and running a volunteer program that gives Hawaii residents access to the Kahoolawe.

The seven-member commission is planning to meet Monday to discuss the budget cuts.

In the Kaneloa area plateau of Kahoolawe, hardpan is the norm.  Here looking towards Maui old pallets are being used to try and get rain water to collect and grow plants to eventually cover the land. 9.29.14

In the Kaneloa area plateau of Kahoolawe, hardpan is the norm. Here, looking toward Maui, old pallets are being used to try and collect rain water to grow plants to eventually cover the land.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Kahoolawe was used as a military bombing range for decades, but was returned to the state of Hawaii in the early 1990s following protests and political pressure. The Navy spent hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up unexploded ordnance on parts of the island. KIRC was formed in 1993 to work with the military, restore the island’s barren ecosystem and increase access for cultural practitioners.

The commission has known for years about the impending budget crunch. Over the past two decades, KIRC has relied on $44 million in federal funding in a trust fund that’s been depleted. This is the first year that the agency has needed to rely on the state for financial support.

Back in January, it appeared as if there was widespread support from lawmakers for funding KIRC. More than a dozen members of the House of Representatives backed a bill that would have secured $6 million over the next two years.

But Naho‘opi‘i said Gov. David Ige only requested $1 million per year in his executive budget for the commission. Ultimately, that’s how much the Legislature decided to set aside.

Legislative money committee chairwomen Sylvia Luke and Jill Tokuda didn’t reply to requests for comment. The governor’s spokeswoman referred questions to Budget & Finance Director Wes Machida, who wasn’t available Wednesday.

Naho‘opi‘i said that the budget cuts will severely limit the agency’s ability to maintain access to the island. That could also affect progress that’s been made on environmental restoration if there’s not enough volunteers or staff members available to consistently tend to anti-erosion projects and similar efforts.

KIRC worker and volunteer hike on trail to weed whack in advance of  larger group traversing trail to clear rocks. 9.28.14

A KIRC employee and volunteer hike on a trail during a weed-whack expedition.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“We’re hoping that we can educate the administration about how important it is for us to be around,” he said, noting that the administration of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie was more familiar with the cause than the Ige administration is.

Meanwhile, the agency is exploring creative ways to cobble together enough money to extend its operations. Naho‘opi‘i said the remaining staff members are figuring out if they can take a pay cut to keep on one more staff member. KIRC also is raising money through a crowdfunding campaign to try to keep the agency open during the summer and finish up work on various grants.

“We want to show the Legislature that we’re being proactive, we’re not just going to sit back and say we didn’t get the money, woe is us,” Naho‘opi‘i said.

He said every year something happens at the end of the legislative session that draws attention away from Kahoolawe. Last year it was the Turtle Bay Resort conservation easement and this year it was the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope, he said.

“We’re not the glamorous group that protests, that has the visuals of people being arrested anymore,” he said. “We are the ones who are there every day doing heavy work, the daily work, continuing the restoration of the island.

“Especially from a social media standpoint, you can only look at so many pictures of people planting trees in the ground,” he said.

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