Gov. David Ige and key state department heads made a public pitch to legislators Thursday for resources to implement the administration’s broad Sustainable Hawaii Initiative.
The governor is seeking new positions and hundreds of millions of dollars for land, environment, agriculture, business and economic development agencies to double local food production, implement a biosecurity plan, protect watersheds, manage marine resources and transition to 100 percent renewable energy over the coming years.
Members of the relevant House and Senate committees seemed generally on board with Ige’s vision for the state but wanted more details from the administration during a two-hour briefing at the Capitol.
Many of the answers will be rooted out — or not — over the next few months as the Legislature considers a bundle of bills aimed at achieving the governor’s sustainability goals.
“State funding for these initiatives is an investment,” Ige said. “As we become more sustainable, it will create more opportunities for our people.”
The governor’s appearance alone was noteworthy. His Cabinet members have typically represented the administration at these informational briefings for legislators, which have been happening all month.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee, and Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, orchestrated the briefing and provided opportunities to the heads of other key committees to ask a series of questions.
Lawmakers wanted to know more, for instance, about a $15 million request to build more fences over the next two years to keep invasive species like pigs and goats out of native forest areas.
One of Ige’s goals is to protect 30 percent of the state’s top-priority watersheds by 2030. That’s about 253,000 acres.
Rep. Ryan Yamane, chair of the House Water and Land Committee, asked how much each mile of fencing costs, noting how President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico is estimated at $4 million a mile.
Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Suzanne Case said it won’t be nearly that much, but the cost depends on terrain that includes cliffs and dense forests. She estimated roughly $100,000 a mile on average and underscored how hard the work is to do. Supplies often must be helicoptered to the site and contractors may spend a week at a time working and camping in an area.
“This is real people doing real work for Hawaii,” she said. “It’s a slog.”
Gabbard said he had seen firsthand how 200 feral goats on Maui had “literally ravaged a mountain.”
Before fresh water reaches people’s faucets, Case said, it flows down mountainsides and through ditches.
Yamane said he understood the need to protect watersheds, but questioned why the administration was not also coming to the Legislature with a request for additional people to do the work instead of just asking for capital funding for the fencing.
Rep. Cindy Evans raised concerns about fencing off hunting areas on the Big Island where she resides. Case said that is not the intent and that there are many great hunting areas in Hawaii.
Case estimated only a quarter of Hawaii’s forests are in good condition and that they remain under threat from climate change, invasive species and disease.
Rapid ohia death has destroyed more than 50,000 acres of one of the state’s most iconic tree species. Case said additional funding will be key in stopping the spread.
“It’s like having holes in your carpet and many, many threads unwinding,” she said.
Case also discussed the need for new positions pertinent to the goal of “effectively managing” 30 percent of nearshore waters by 2030.
Species like ulua, spiny lobsters, moi and opihi have been decimated over the past several decades due to unsustainable fishing practices, climate change, sea warming, coral bleaching and sediment coming from offshore, Case said.
“We would of course like to effectively manage 100 percent but we have a long way to go,” she said. “We like to be realistic and ambitious at the same time.”
Case said “effective management” doesn’t mean closing off all the fisheries. She said it means looking at what the threats are and what actions the state can take to overcome them.
On a slide during her presentation, “effective management” was defined as collaborative science and monitoring, active management and better enforcement.
Case said the department needs the Legislature’s support in reaching the goal by funding a community planner, legal fellow, marine invasives specialist and a marine enforcement unit in each county.
State Agriculture Director Scott Enright told the panel of lawmakers that achieving the state’s “aggressive” goal of doubling local food production by 2020 hinges on “land, water and capital.”
He encouraged them to put additional funding into programs that help the next generation of farmers lease land. The average age of a farmer in Hawaii is 60, he said.
“They’re never going to be able to buy the land,” Enright said, underscoring that “the state’s land resources will be invaluable.”
Lawmakers were on board with growing more food locally, but had doubts about the details of the goal. As Rep. Matt LoPresti pointed out, the state lacks a solid baseline of how much food it’s currently growing.
“What’s the metric we’re going to be using?” he said. “It’s ‘I don’t know times two.’ … We don’t want alternate facts to be an invasive species in Hawaii.”
Enright said determining the baseline is a “work in progress.” But he said the state does have good numbers for products like poultry, beef, milk, papaya and macadamia nuts, but not so much for vegetables.
Noting how in the 1980s there were six planners, Enright said he now has just two and they mostly work on land use issues.
He also pointed at the challenge of the state transitioning from a 100-year history of growing sugar and pineapple for export to growing food for its own residents. He said the big businesses that used to grow those crops have little interest in farming food for Hawaii, in large part because the land is more valuable when put to other uses.
Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism Director Luis Salaveria told lawmakers that they can make a few strategic changes to statutes that will help with the state mandate of getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources.
The state is at about 25 percent right now, he said, which puts it ahead of schedule. The next benchmark is 30 percent by 2020.
One of the changes Salveria said he wants the Legislature to make is the definition of “renewable portfolio standard,” which is what’s used to calculate the percentage of renewable energy.
“It’s incorrect,” he said. “It’s based upon sales versus generation.”
Efforts to change the formula last year were unsuccessful.
Salaveria said the state is also working aggressively with utility companies on a power supply improvement plan that looks at future electricity generation.