We Can Have It All: Ag, Public Access And Forest Protection


About the Author

Moana Bjur

Moana Bjur is executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii.


Our public lands should be put to the highest and best use for the public trust.

A bill being heard this Legislative session would transfer 45,000 acres of public lands that have native Hawaiian cultural resources, public trails and hunting areas, endangered species, and native forests, to the state Department of Agriculture, whose mission is solely agriculture. These lands have been managed for over a century by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which provides these lands to ranchers while also protecting the multiple resources these lands have to offer.

House Bill 2035, HD1, SD1 seeks to transfer 11 parcels of state land — leased to four ranches on Hawaii island — from the DLNR to the DOA.

First, the singling out of these four ranches raises questions. In fact, it may be unconstitutional. Article XI, section 5, of the Hawai‘i Constitution prohibits special legislation favoring some, and passing this bill may expose the state to lawsuits.

A bill pending at the Hawaii Legislature would allow transfer of DLNR lands to the state Department of Agriculture — a bad idea, says the author. The DLNR negotiates with ranchers to provide public access for hiking and hunting across leased ranch lands such as the Ainapo Trail access road in Kapapala on Hawaii island.

Moana Bjur

The DLNR has been leasing these lands for decades to these ranchers, while ensuring that many community benefits remain protected. For example, the DLNR negotiates with Kapapala ranch to continue to allow public access to roads used by the Kau community to access the forest, and to the Ainapo Trail. This trail is so significant that it is on the National Register of Historic Places because it is the traditional Hawaiian route to the Mauna Loa summit, used to provide offerings to Pele during eruptions.

The DLNR also has negotiated to allow public hunting across 28,000 acres of this ranch, contributing to Hawaii’s food self-sufficiency and a much-loved recreation area used by generations of local families. Because DLNR’s mission includes public hunting and trails, these features are protected. If the lands go to DOA, would those lease terms for public access remain, or would the public access signs be replaced by “no trespassing” signs?

‘Watershed Partnership Plans’

Over 10,000 acres of the lands proposed to be transferred are native rainforests, intact enough to include endangered forest birds and plants. DLNR has been working with the ranchers to set aside these old growth forests, or create sustainable agro-forestry and carbon sequestration projects.

With climate change and species extinction threatening our planet, is it appropriate to convert some of Hawaii’s last remaining native rainforest to DOA?

Many of the lands proposed for transfer to DOA contain old growth native rainforests, such as this area in Kapapala along the Ainapo Trail access road.

Moana Bjur

Ranchers say that transfer to DOA will allow them to get more long-term leases at cheaper rents, potentially because DOA is able to directly negotiate with tenants to extend leases, rather than having to competitively auction lands once leases end. DLNR could also get that authority, and has proposed that solution through HB 2358 or Senate Bill 2914.

The bill requires “watershed partnership plans” be created and implemented. However, this is meaningless without a requirement on who approves those plans or the amount of funds that the ranch must contribute.

Ranchers mention that they will still be required to implement “conservation plans” if the lands go to DOA. This is untrue. Many ranches do not have any conservation plans. The plans some of them have are short-term voluntary soil plans made with the Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, that the ranches can choose not to renew. Since these lands do not have the regulatory protections provided by the Conservation District, they could be clear-cut and grazed to the dirt without needing any further approvals.

Much is to be lost if these precious lands are transferred.

Bill proponents say this will institute the intention of a law passed 17 years ago (Act 90) which set a process for the transfer of certain leases in the Agricultural District from the DLNR to the DOA. Again, not true. That law recognized that some of these lands are not appropriate to transfer, so required that the DLNR must approve of the transfers. DLNR has already transferred 18,000 acres, but does not support the transfer of some of these lands because of their multiple natural and cultural values that should be protected for the public.

Much is to be lost and little gained if these precious natural lands are transferred to DOA. We can continue to have ranching while also protecting native Hawaiian cultural resources, public access and hunting, endangered species and forests if these lands remain under DLNR.

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About the Author

Moana Bjur

Moana Bjur is executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii.


Latest Comments (0)

HB 2035Both the DOA and DLNR use the State A.G. to write leases.  A lease needs to contain  all relevant terms and conditions including stewardship requirements, exclusions of land and approved activities etc. State stewardship objectives can be included.  And, licenses can be written to permit access to leased lands' resources.DOA is better equipped to understand the business of agriculture and that is the main focus of the pastoral leases. Where a lease needs to reflect special conditions, DOA should ask the DLNR and/or others for their input. DLNR managed the Kapapala Ranch lease.  The Ranch existed 17 years with a month to month, revocable permit.  Uncertainty and short term thinking hamper long term land decisions and make capital improvements decisions difficult.  The land and the lessee suffered because of the lack of understanding of business and agriculture by DLNR. DOA should manage agricultural leases.Aloha,Peter Simmons

PeterSimmons · 1 month ago

Any modern monoculture ag or ranching is negative to Hawaii ecosystems.  But they are not as negative as development is.  The lowest impact would arguably a restoration of the Ahupua'a system - plus fresh fish and poi is very healthy eating something we would all profit a lot from.

Sally · 1 month ago

The counterfactual presumption of this whole piece is that the DLNR is a good manager of ranch lands. The fact is, they're not. Egregious examples abound.  The other problem here is the imputed 'good motives' of one government agency, and the purported 'they don't care' motives of another.  People, it's results, not motives, that count, and impugning anyone's motives in public is an anti-democratic practice that has become rather too prevalent.  Fact is, it is very often the fishermen, hunters, ranchers and farmers who are the true conservationists.  Who saved Hawaii from the horrific dustbowl it was facing in the 1910's and '20's?  Agriculturists concerned for watersheds.  There is no oligarchy of virtuous motives despite the presumption articles such as this. The legislature long ago decided that many DLNR holdings in actual agricultural use should be moved to the Department of Agriculture.  Get it done already.

Haleiwa_Dad · 1 month ago

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