Over 60% of the more than 200,000 acres of land granted long ago to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands may never have any homes for Native Hawaiians built on it.
About 59,660 acres are in conservation areas that contain endangered species and cultural resources, or may simply be geologically unsuitable for development. Another 65,218 acres cannot be developed in the next two decades because they lack infrastructure such as roads and water lines necessary to support homes.
DHHL has long been criticized for its slow progress in getting Native Hawaiians onto homestead lands that can be developed, and its failure to build new rental housing. In 2017, the department produced no new housing units for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, those with at least 50% Hawaiian blood.
However, DHHL awarded 292 lots in 2017 and 2018, and has plans to award 1,300 more within the next five years, according to a recent presentation to state lawmakers. More than 28,000 applicants are still on the waiting list
Much of the DHHL property, which came from old ranching and farming lands, was never suited for homesteading to begin with.
About 34%, or around 70,000 acres, are planned to be used for homesteading purposes, according to the DHHL. And only about 9,500 acres of that are planned for residential lots. The rest would be agricultural or pastoral lots for homesteaders with livestock.
At a May 1 hearing, some state senators questioned whether DHHL is the right agency to be caring for conservation lands that can never be used for homesteading. Sen. Kai Kahele asked if the department would consider swapping some of its property for land from another agency like the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Sen. Jarret Keohokalole also questioned whether the DHHL should be responsible for managing those lands.
“Some of this stuff, you guys just shouldn’t have to do,” Keohokalole said.
A DHHL spokesman later said that the Hawaiian Homes Commission that oversees the agency may consider land-swapping, but there is no indication that any negotiations are taking place.
There haven’t been any land exchanges since at least 2012, said Stanton Enomoto, a director with the Native Hawaiian Outreach Office in the U.S. Interior Department.
More than 1,400 acres along the cliffs above Waimanalo are part of the DHHL inventory, but no homes can be built there.
Much of this is within the Waimanalo Forest Reserve managed by DHHL. The reserve is home to endangered birds like the pueo and elepaio, as well as native flora like haha. DHHL works with the DLNR and the Nature Conservancy to care for the land.
Lands like these are what DHHL calls underperforming assets because their care, often mandated under federal or state law, distracts from the agency’s mission of providing Hawaiians with homesteads, according to its Oahu Island Plan.
They make up about 35% of DHHL’s lands on Oahu, or around 2,865 acres. There’s also preservation areas in Waianae, Lualualei and Nanakuli.
There are about 200,000 acres of DHHL land spread across the islands.
Many Native Hawaiian beneficiaries think the agency should keep those lands.
“During Open Houses and Beneficiary Consultation meetings, the responses were overwhelmingly to keep the lands in the inventory,” according to the Oahu Island Plan.
A survey of applicants on the waiting list for homes, however, found that about 37% were not sure what to do with the lands.
The Oahu Island Plan says the agency needs to acquire more land if it hopes to meet the demand for homesteads, but also said it should consider giving some of its unusable lands to DLNR or a conservation group to manage.
The agency already partners with DLNR in other areas to manage land, said DHHL spokesman Cedric Duarte. For example, it works with DLNR on Kauai to fight the spread of rapid ohia death.
Other islands also have giant swaths of DHHL trust land that are undevelopable.
That includes about 24% of Molokai’s 25,800-plus acres. About 600 of those acres are on sea cliffs on the northern coast.
Over 2,200 acres in the Kapaakea, Kamiloloa and Makakupaia areas are set aside as forest preserve or for subsistence gathering and hunting. Homesteaders in those areas asked the department in the early 2000s to preserve the land for those purposes.
About 74% of DHHL lands on Maui are undevelopable. The department manages more than 22,000 acres on the southern slopes of Haleakala in Kahikinui. The area lacks roads and water and sewer lines, but the department carved out 75 homesteads on the giant tract of land for families wishing to live off-the-grid.
Conservation and special district lands are sprinkled across Kauai, which has a total inventory of 20,565 acres and the lowest percentage of undevelopable land at about 17%.
However, more than 66% of the DHHL land on Kauai is designated for general agriculture — a catch-all term DHHL uses for lands that can’t be developed within the next few decades due to lack of infrastructure. The lands could, in theory, be used for agriculture now, but they are typically on steep terrain and cut off from road access.
Most of those lands, about 12,500 acres, are in the mauka areas in Waimea. Infrastructure costs to begin developing the area could exceed $22.4 million. The closest water tank is 5 miles away, and the area lacks sufficient rainfall for any water catchment systems to be effective, DHHL’s Kauai Island Plan says.
On the Big Island, the single largest tract of DHHL land is mostly unusable in its current state. Close to half of the 56,000 acres around Piihonua and Humuula are set aside for conservation.
Much of the land is overgrown with a noxious weed called gorse. Feral cattle are also a problem there, and contribute to rapid Ohia death, according to the department. DHHL has awarded contracts to cull the feral cattle.
Proposed uses for the land once the cattle are killed include reforestation to control the spread of gorse and possible eventual homesteading. The department hopes to rehabilitate native forests in the area.
The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act creating Hawaiian homelands passed in 1921 as part of an omnibus bill that made amendments to the territory’s land laws benefiting sugar and ranching interests in the islands.
The 200,000 or so acres of land that make up the inventory were plucked from a set of lands under lease to ranching and sugar companies that were set to expire from 1917 and 1921. The lands were managed by some of Hawaii’s Big Five, including C. Brewer & Co., American Factors and T.H. Davies and Co.
Much of the lands were far away from developing areas, and many of them were depleted by years of grazing.
John Wise, a Native Hawaiian territorial senator, introduced a slew of proposals in 1918 requesting that Congress set aside some of those lands for homesteading, though not necessarily for Hawaiians.
But helping Hawaiians turned out to be a priority for Wise. While other members of the territory’s delegation testified to Congress in 1920 on amendments to land laws, Wise went off-script and advocated heavily for rehabilitation measures for Native Hawaiians.
The lands were subpar, which was a point of contention for some members of Congress. The act was also opposed by some of the ranching companies and sugar lobbyists in Washington who feared they might lose their leases.
William Jarrett, a territorial representative, later questioned why the delegation pushed for those particular lands during a verbal squabble in the territorial legislature with McCarthy.
“They want to give Hawaiians lands that a goat couldn’t live on. This whole thing is absolutely a joke,” Jarret said during a legislative hearing.
Wise, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole and some members of the territorial legislature spent much of their time from 1920 to 1921 drafting versions of the homesteading bill. They originally proposed giving homesteads to anyone who was any part-Hawaiian for a lease of 999 years.
The final bill proposed to Congress made concessions to the sugar and ranching interests to gain political support, which included raising the blood quantum requirement to 50 percent. It also excluded any cultivated sugar lands or lands already under a homestead lease from falling into the inventory.
“We took what we could get,” Wise told a congressional committee. “I was told a long time ago that one of our proverbs was never look a gift horse in the mouth, so we took what we could get.”
Some homesteaders are finding uses for supposedly undevelopable lands.
In the late-1990s, DHHL leased out unimproved lots to a handful of families in Kahikinui on Maui who were fine with living off-the-grid. Those families had to build their own homes and find energy and water resources.
The agency is considering a similar program in a section of Waimea on Kauai called Puu Opae, as well as in Anahola on the island’s east side. It has been conducting meetings with Native Hawaiian beneficiaries to come up with a plan to settle the land.
The proposed kuleana lots in Puu Opae would take up about 1,126 acres.
In the Piihonua area on the Big Island, where just miles away feral cattle are roaming, two homestead associations have proposed a shared community pasture to raise beef.
Ronald Kodani, the president of the Piihonua Homestead Association, says he’s working with the nearby Kaumana Homestead Association to raise beef cattle in lower and upper Piihonua.
Duncan Seto, a retired fire captain who now works with the Kaumana Homestead Association, said the two groups are also looking at creating a pasture to capture some of the wild cows in upper Piihonua and create a herd of beef cows in lower Piihonua.
“We got a lot of wild cattle up there. So we figure, maybe we let them beef up a little,” Seto said.
It would take a lot of work though. The lands are thick with gorse, and even after they’re cleared, the communities would need to put up fencing to help keep the cattle in and poachers out, Seto said.
Kodani has seen poachers go up the mountain into overgrown land. But he doesn’t want to see it go unused.
“Hey, maybe we can raise some cattle there,” he said.
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