A program to make more state agricultural lands available for farming and ranching has made progress in the last decade, according to the head of the state agency in charge of those land transfers.

Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Suzanne Case told state lawmakers Wednesday that her department has transferred more than 19,000 acres to the Department of Agriculture. 

The land transfers were ordered under a law that passed the Legislature in 2003 called Act 90. The idea was that those lands, which were already classified for agricultural use, could be better managed and utilized by the DOA, which already works with farmers and has expertise in agriculture. 

Farmers tend the fields below elevated rail after HART officials proclaimed finishing over 1 mile. 3 dec 2014. photograph Cory Lum
The Department of Land and Natural Resources has transferred more than 19,000 acres to the Department of Agriculture. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the past 17 years, DLNR has transferred more than 237 parcels previously under its auspices to the agriculture department, according to a presentation to the Senate Water and Land and Agriculture committees. 

Of the 237 parcels transferred so far, only nine have not been leased, according to a DOA spokeswoman.

Case also provided an update on 112 sites that the DOA identified for transfer in 2019. 

DLNR may choose to not transfer a certain piece of land if it believes there could be important resources that must be protected, like endangered animal and plant species or cultural resources.

Work on transferring some of those lands has been slowed because the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented state inspectors from making site visits to some of those parcels, according to Case.

On Kauai where 35 pieces of land are under review, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife identified 21 sites it believes are important for reforestation, public hunting, recreation and nene habitats. 

On Oahu, DLNR is retaining one parcel near the rail line and the University of Hawaii West Oahu. Meanwhile, it has approved another transfer, and is waiting on paperwork from the Department of Agriculture to complete another.

Since 2019, DLNR completed seven land transfers in Maui County, but is still waiting for DOA’s review of 25 more. DLNR also identified three sites that should be preserved for shoreline and forest access, koa wood, trails and cultural values.

The DOA asked for a review of 52 parcels on the Big Island. All are still pending the agricultural department’s inspection, according to Case’s presentation. Of those, DLNR has identified 11 that have important natural resources.

Another parcel there that was to be transferred ended up being set aside as a forest reserve.

Other issues that have hampered the transfers include the size of a certain parcel, and whether a farmer’s proposal for that land is economically feasible. Much of the land also lacks official state surveys.

Some lands only have survey data because a state lessee decided to pay for one themselves, State Lands Administrator Russell Tsuji told lawmakers.

Case also said that certain provisions in Hawaii’s law governing public lands also ties DLNR’s hands when it comes to transfers. 

DLNR proposed two measures to the Legislature in 2020, House Bill 2358 and Senate Bill 2914, that would have given the department more flexibility in extending leases on pasture lands. Both bills failed to clear the Legislature.

Another bill that stirred some controversy last session called for DLNR to transfer Big Island pasture lands used by ranchers to the DOA. The measure had support from the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council and Hawaii Farm Bureau, among other organizations, but was opposed by DLNR and conservationists.

In written testimony to lawmakers, the department said that parts of those pasture lands also included areas with native plant species and access to trail heads and cultural sites.

In response to a question from the senators, Case said she thinks regular updates for the Legislature would make sense to keep track of the land transfers.

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