To suggest expansion of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is to attempt to answer the question: “What would one ideally like to see the park become while addressing at the same time the issue of almost 60 years of developmental ‘encroachment’ on volcanically active terrain?”

The 150th and 200th anniversary of the park will fall in 2066 and 2116, respectively. What will it look like then?

The recent (and on-going) events in Leilani Estates have opened an opportunity to both configure the park for a brighter future and to assist thousands of lower Puna residents who are currently displaced and homeless, or otherwise cut off from their homes, farms and businesses. A great many of these residents are uninsured and have no current hope for a good outcome to their crisis. To develop the aspects of this story, we first have to go back over a hundred years to the founding of the park.

Halemaumau crater. 3 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The crowds were big and steady at Halemaumau crater in 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The park’s founders did not go far enough in 1916. The eastern boundary should have continued to the coast at Cape Kumukahi and park lands should have included the southeastern coast line of Kilauea and those regions north of the east rift zone axis (north of the Pu’u ‘O’o lavas, the 1840 lavas and north of Nanawale Bay). The town of Pahoa would thus be inside the boundaries of such a new park addition and would be a gateway town. This enlargement would be wholly consistent with the active domain of the entire volcano. Volcanic terrane itself would therefore determine the boundaries in a very natural way. Had such an enlargement been legislated, the current mess in lower Puna would never have occurred.

Similarly, the park’s founders (and amenders) did not go westward (and southwestward) far enough. The current western-to-southwestern boundary of HVNP falls at fairly high elevation within Mauna Loa’s southwest rift zone. The Kahuku extension (from 2004) expands the park in ways that lie, in the main, outside and to the southeast of historical lava flows. Beneath the southwest rift zone (and also beneath the western Park boundary) lies the development of Hawaiian Ocean View (containing HOVE and six other named subdivisions). HOVE is very extensive (11,000 acres from near sea level to about 5,000-foot elevation) and paved roads are not the norm.

Fissure 8 activity in Kilauea’s lower east rift zone in mid-June 2018, in Leilani Estates. USGS-HVO

The 2000 census population was 2,178 while the 2010 figure was 4,437 — a doubling. Given the rapid transit times for lava from eruption site to ocean (as little as three hours) HOVE is a tragedy in waiting. As with Kilauea, a more natural set of boundaries would have extended the park boundaries to the ocean with ample lateral width across the entire rift zone to prevent later developmental encroachment. Please keep the suitcase packed and the car engine running.

Study of the 1916 founding documents and accounts developed by park staff, underscore the great challenges business and scientific leaders such as Lorrin Thurston and Thomas Jaggar had in creating support for the park within the U.S. Congress as well as here in Hawaii. In Hawaii, there were relatively few landowners in the footprint of the park and these were large owners such as the Bishop Estate with leases to the C. Brewer Co. Although then-Hawaii Gov. Walter Frear was a strong supporter, multiple trips to Washington, D.C., were required by Jaggar and Thurston to enlist support from Congress. One “take-away” from these documents was that there were relatively few property owners who needed convincing to release their lands prior to 1916. Today, that number of property owners is in the thousands, and that is in lower Puna alone.

‘Privatizing Gains, Socializing Losses’

This is not my natural inclination or first choice. But we have seen what 59 years of irresponsible private development combined with irresponsible political “leadership” have wrought. Is it reasonable to expect combinations of real estate interests, eager buyers, politically compliant administrations at the county and state level, attorneys and the insurance industry to solve the current problem? Reliance on these groups, instead, promises much, much more of the same.

Following Hawaiian statehood, the rush to “develop” the vast volcanic lands of Puna and Ka’u was on, with ample state and county encouragement. Subdivision developments in both these regions proliferated. The eventual destruction of the Royal Gardens subdivision by Pu’u ‘O’o lavas that commenced in the early 1980s was largely complete by 1990, as was the destruction of Kalapana. Private insurance carriers had now seen enough. But wait, the state of Hawaii had a new idea: the creation of the Hawaii Property Insurance Association — an organization that requires insurance companies doing business in the state to also insure at-risk properties in volcanically active areas. A new lower Puna and Ka’u building boom was on. What could possibly go wrong?

Preservation Easements And Eminent Domain

A relatively “rapid” solution for expanding the park while dealing with the developmental encroachment would be application of eminent domain by the U.S. government while compensating all landowners at the May 1, 2018, market value. Land restoration by the National Park Service would then commence.

This compensation option could include houses/lots destroyed by lava, as well as standing houses now isolated by lava and therefore rendered unusable. In this case, the “destruction of use” is just as violent an outcome for the owner as the outright destruction of the dwelling itself. The destruction of one’s house by fire has true (and final) closure, however the isolation of a residence by lava does not bring closure but rather the frustration that “it is still there, and I own it, but I can never use it.” Both cases warrant full compensation.

The author, middle, and a field crew (geologists, a geochemist and the helicopter crew ) at Pu’u ‘O’o during the phased (episodic) eruption series in summer, 1985. The location is up-rift of the current activity at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates, within Kilauea’s east rift zone. Courtesy Michael Ryan (then USGS)

A very much slower approach would entail the application of easements. Preservation (or “scenic”) easements are a legal tool used by the NPS since the 1930s to acquire property deemed in the national interest. The easement permits the continued ownership of homes, farms and places of business, but prevents further construction or development.

It is a permanent status. The property may be passed on to heirs, and there are potential local and federal tax advantages to owners. Many owners are passionately committed to continuing to use their houses, farms and businesses, so if still accessible, they would be permitted such use under this provision. Owners opting not to enroll in the preservation easement program may instead pass their property to the NPS at fair market value. It is expected that this approach would take a very long (but unknowable) time to create relatively development-free (restored) parklands.

What To Do With Lava Zones 1 And 2?

Within Kilauea’s east rift zone, lava zone 1 roughly tracks the rift axis while zone 2 flanks it in a crudely symmetric way. The population within zone 1 is greatly dwarfed by that of zone 2. Hence there is some attractiveness in the idea that only zone 1 should be in the revised HVNP boundaries, simplifying the property acquisition process.

Two objections arise here. First, the newly configured park should extend to the sea, incorporating the lava-ocean interface. One can argue a while about the scenic qualities of this coast: great for nature lovers but maybe not so special for those wanting a swimming beach.

Second, and because the U.S. Congress has not yet been able to turn off gravity, eruptions originating in zone 1 have a nasty habit of delivering lava into (and sometimes across) lava zone 2. The problem of separating the population from active lava has not then been solved. Instead, and with expected increases in zone 2 development through time, it would grow worse — perhaps much worse.

The Fate Of Puna Geothermal Venture

Under the assumption that PGV will ultimately be spared in this (or near future) eruptions, PGV should be preserved. Although privately owned, it puts power on the Big Island grid, serves the public need and must be considered a community asset in the larger sense.

In addition to restoring the wells currently out of service, PGV should be allowed (read: “encouraged”) to expand their well field into their vision of increasing their capacity, from 38 MW to 45 MW. This expansion has already been approved.

In-line multiple fissures at Leilani Estates in mid-May, 2018. Residences are at left. Permission for image use granted by the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Tina Neal, USGS-HVO

Howls will be expected from the local community: “unfairness,” “favoritism,” “special interest.” But based on the meetings I have attended at the Pahoa Community Center over the past several years (and well before the Leilani Estates crisis), there was already a distinctly negative community vibe towards PGV — and that was during the “good times.”

The state of Hawaii delegation to the U.S. Congress should confer with colleagues in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., and promote this approach to a no-growth solution that solves several current problems in both lower Puna and in Ka’u and may well enhance future visitor experiences as well.

Time To Act Now

Is this a (hopelessly) unrealistic proposal? Of course it is. You will get little argument here.

To make this proposal a reality, great commitment will be needed over many years by the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Congress and its state of Hawaii delegation, the County of Hawaii, the state of Hawaii and by the Hawaiian people. Along the way, there will be great resistance by the real estate industry, by invested residents, and by some of the same types of political office holders that helped create the development encroachment mess so many years ago — and have then continued to feed it — and continue to do so today.

Hawaii Volcano National Park closed in May after fears of eruption reported by USGS. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The provisions of the proposal offer substantial relief to property owners in lower Puna. They have multiple options for full compensation for lots, businesses or homes. The prospect of a full bailout by the federal government eases greatly the pressure on the County of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii to fund various schemes for assistance, let alone a full-compensation scenario. Nevertheless, Hawaii federal taxpayers (including the residents of Puna) will be contributing their share to the proposed federal buyout.

To not act now in reducing the developmental pressure on this fragile volcanic terrane, and worse yet, to allow continued development will set the region up for potentially far worse tragedies in the years ahead. Such a scenario may well include significant loss of life in addition to the expected devastating property losses. For the southwest rift zone of Mauna Loa, the consequences for continued development in HOVE are actually dire indeed, given the relatively enormous eruption volumes, high eruption rates and the short transit times of Mauna Loa lavas before the expected impact in HOVE.

“Business as usual” is not an acceptable option.

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About the Author

  • Michael Ryan
    Michael Ryan taught geology and geophysics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He worked as a research volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey for 30 years. He is currently with the Magma Physics Project in Hilo, Hawaii. He has 45 years experience in working on active volcanoes in Hawaii, Iceland, Japan and the high Cascades of Washington and Oregon.