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The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources is tasked with regulating 750 miles of coastline, 1.3 million acres of public lands and 3 million acres of ocean.
The state’s tourism-driven economy depends on the department succeeding in its mission as much as its residents depend on it for their health and enjoyment — not to mention the myriad reasons that it’s important to steward the environment for its own sake.
Governors, with the Legislature’s approval, have generally allotted DLNR less than 1 percent of the overall state budget to do the job, and the next couple years look no different.
For fiscal 2018, which starts July 1, Gov. David Ige has proposed an operating budget for the department of $58 million in general funds out of his overall $7.4 billion spending plan.
During a legislative briefing Thursday with the department’s director, Suzanne Case, Sen. Brickwood Galuteria said it must be “overwhelming” to be asked to do so much with so little.
But aside from other departments demanding bigger chunks of the budget, be it to boost an ailing public education system or repair aging infrastructure, there’s a reason that lawmakers are hesitant to beef up DLNR.
The department has failed to utilize some of the extra funds and positions that have been provided in recent years for its Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, took Case and acting DOCARE Enforcement Chief Jason Redulla to task for the department not having hired anyone in the past two years to fill 12 positions.
The plan called for three officers each on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai to patrol the waters as part of a community fisheries enforcement unit. More than $500,000 was budgeted to do so.
The department still wants to have this 12-person unit, but officials said it’s been hard to fill the positions because they are classified as temporary instead of permanent. In prior years, officials said they did not have enough money to buy uniforms for new employees.
“We’ve seen the shuffle games with money with DOCARE before,” Tokuda told Case and Redulla. “Go back and look at the history of excuses you’ve made.”
Redulla has served as the acting DOCARE enforcement chief since Thomas Friel was forced to step down in June. Case said she was disappointed with Friel’s job performance and a lack of trust he had from the leadership team.
Later Thursday, the department announced that a new chief had been hired. Robert Farrell is set to begin Tuesday. He had retired as assistant chief of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and came to Hawaii in 2015 to work as a DOCARE officer on the Big Island.
“Working as a conservation officer is one of the best jobs you could ever have and it’s a job that I love,” he said in a statement. “But when the chief’s job became available, I knew it was my kuleana to step up and do what I could for DOCARE. I am very grateful for the opportunity and I look forward to working with our officers to protect the natural beauty and cultural resources of Hawaii for everyone.”
State Parks was another division of DLNR that had lawmakers questioning whether disrepair was an issue of money or management.
Sen. Karl Rhoads, who will chair the Water and Land Committee during the legislative session that opens Wednesday, said he is routinely impressed by the quality of the parks, trail systems and facilities he encounters traveling around the country or internationally.
For many years he said he thought Hawaii had let its park infrastructure go as a means of deterring visitors and protecting “secret places” for local residents.
“But that’s no longer an excuse because everyone is finding everything anyway,” Rhoads said, noting the advent of social media and record numbers of visitors.
“Why can’t we be like them more?” he said, using the Canadian province of Alberta as one example of a place with pristine parks. “Is it a matter of money?”
Case said the short answer was she didn’t know. But she said other places that lure tourists with their natural beauty have far higher budgets for their land departments.
She said people going to Montana to fly fish, for instance, pay sizable user fees. And using a personal example, she said she paid a $200 fee to camp during a six-day trek in Tasmania. She said human waste was actually helicoptered out of the park.
Curt Cottrell, who heads the State Parks Division, said he recently learned Hawaii had the lowest camping fees in the nation.
“Iowa charged more than us and I would argue we have more spectacular resources,” he said.
Hawaii has 50 state parks on more than 30,000 acres spread across five islands, according to DLNR’s testimony to lawmakers.
Cottrell said there’s a “disconnect” between the revenue stream generated by the visitor industry, which relies on Hawaii’s natural resources as its “backdrop” for promotional purposes, and the amount of funding DLNR receives.
However, he noted a recent improvement with the department receiving $3 million in transient accommodations tax revenues.
“Our facilities are at max patronage,” Cottrell said. “I don’t know what the solution is. It’s either more kapu signs … or more budget.”
Looking ahead, Case highlighted Ige’s sustainability initiative, which DLNR will play an active role in. She noted the administration’s goal of protecting 30 percent (253,000 acres) of Hawaii’s highest priority watershed forests by 2030, and “effectively managing” 30 percent of the islands’ nearshore waters in the same time frame.
The department will also be working with the Department of Agriculture on implementing a biosecurity plan by 2027 to combat the spread of rapid ohia death, which is wrecking the Big Island’s native forests, and controlling invasive species like little fire ants and coconut rhinoceros beetles as well as outbreaks of diseases such as dengue fever.
Agriculture Director Scott Enright made his budget pitch to the Ways and Means Committee before Case. He has struggled to fill dozens of vacant positions, including ones for the pesticide branch, which Tokuda grilled him on.
Case also underscored the role DLNR played in hosting “the most successful” World Conservation Congress in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s history.
The department was the lead agency in putting on the 10-day event in September, marking the first time the organization has met in the United States. More than 10,000 people attended from 192 countries.
She said the event focused the public’s attention on the importance of conservation, noting the media coverage and student involvement. She thanked lawmakers for some $10 million they agreed to put in the budget when private fundraising efforts fell short.