HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii Island – Specialty license plates have become a six-figure revenue source for the Big Island’s top visitor attraction.

A state-authorized program allows the issuance of specialty license plates featuring the park’s Kilauea volcano. Vehicle owners can opt to pay extra for the plates to help finance resource protection and educational programs within the expansive park that was damaged in last year’s eruption-related earthquakes.

“It’s an incredibly passive way to raise an impactful amount of money for a very important cause,” said Malu Debus, a Hilo resident and park volunteer, after putting groceries into her SUV bearing the specialized plates. “It’s our responsibility to take care of our natural environment.”

Plus they look cool, or at least different than the bland white Hawaii plates. These are the state’s only specialty license plates available to all residents.

Paying an extra $18 a year for a specialized Hawaii Volcanoes National Park license plate was not a big deal for Malu Debus, who said it’s a great way to help the park’s natural environment.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“We’ve had that frickin’ rainbow for 30-something years. I’m over it,” Robert Miguel, of Waimea said of the standard design that he replaced with the specialty plates.

Miguel said he was going through a divorce, and among the changes he wanted to make to his life was getting unique plates.

Robert Miguel bought Haleakala National Park plates, which he prefers over the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park design.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“It’s like a personal license plate, but not personal,” he said.

Miguel proudly pointed out that his truck bears plate No. 9, which he said was purchased within days of them being made available Aug. 1, 2017, on the park’s 101st anniversary. He actually took off from work and went to the Hawaii County vehicle registration office to turn in his old plates.

Miguel selected the plates depicting a native nene bird and silversword plant in recognition of Maui’s Haleakala National Park. Although he’s not toured that park, Miguel said he prefers the design to the one depicting flowing lava.

‘Find Their Volcano’

Maui company Sae Design created the images as a donation to the National Park Service, which also offers specialty license plates at a handful of mainland national parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain.

The special license plates for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have raised $135,000.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

“We are proud to raise awareness of the first national parks in Hawaii through release of these specialty license plates,” Hawaii Volcanoes Superintendent Cindy Orlando said in a statement announcing the program’s launch. “We hope all residents will be inspired to find their volcano and support these treasured landscapes.”

Whatever the attraction, the plates have become increasingly popular on Big Island roadways.

Nearly 7,500 of the lava versions have been sold, compared to 1,651 of the Maui plates, Jessica Ferracane, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

The plates are available statewide through each county’s participating DMV office. The designated park gets $18 from both the initial $35.50 fee and the annual $25 renewal charge.

“Who cares?” Miguel said when asked about the added expense to vehicle registration fees that jumped 30 percent starting last September.

Haleakala National Park on Maui also has a specialty plate.

Debus also was unconcerned with the higher fee.

The Volcanoes National Park plates have raised $135,000, “which will fund an endowment for future priorities and needs,” Ferracane said.

Responsibility for managing the money rests with the Hawaii Pacific Parks Association, a nonprofit created in 1933 that partners with the National Park Service to support six parks in Hawaii and American Samoa, according to a Hawaii Volcanoes National Park statement announcing the license plate program.

“We’re just a pass-through,” said Mel Boehl, business director for the association located within the park. “The money comes to us, and we pass it through to the park.”

Proceeds from its park stores and other ventures allowed the association last year to provide a combined $1.5 million to its partnering national parks, according to its website.

Park Still Recovering

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park alone needs millions of dollars to repair damage from last year’s earthquakes.

The popular Thurston Lava Tube and Kilauea Overlook remain closed, and there’s no estimate when they could be reopened, Ferracane said.

Jaggar Museum and the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are still not “safe for occupancy,” she said.

This May 3, 2018, photo was taken hours before molten lava started erupting downslope from Kilauea volcano’s summit, seen here from the since-closed overlook inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Closure of the observatory monitoring station has created growing concern that it could be moved to Oahu. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono last month said she wanted to keep it on the Big Island.

“The presence of geologists and associated scientists in the area predates the park, which contains two of the most continuously active and studied volcanoes in the world,” Ferracane said.

Most of the park’s trails, all its campgrounds, the Volcano House hotel, Kilauea Military Camp and Volcano Art Gallery are open, she said.

Visitor counts plummeted 45 percent in 2018, due largely to most of the park being closed 134 days because of seismic activity, she said.

This year’s tallies are still down, but last month’s spring break fueled a “noticeable surge” that saw more than 4,000 daily visitors – approaching 2017’s pre-eruption numbers – at Kilauea Visitor Center, Ferracane said.

Also promising was last year’s nearly tripling of visitor counts at the park’s southern Kahuku Unit, which was kept open an extended five days a week during the eruptions, she said.

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