The agency tasked with managing millions of acres of public lands, ocean and coastline in Hawaii is asking the Legislature for $31.6 million to help protect the state’s natural resources.

Suzanne Case, who heads the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said more funding is needed to increase staff and better maintain state parks and trails.

“Our trails are in really bad shape, especially on Oahu, but also on the other islands,” Case said in presenting her budget request to the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

The state already has appropriated more than $161 million for DLNR in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The department is asking for an additional $31.6 million on top of that, which would bring the department’s budget to more than $193 million.

Hawaii DLNR Director Suzanne Case presented her department’s budget request to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

DLNR budget highlights include nearly $12 million to support state park operations, $1.1 million for a program handling wildfires and emergency response, $3.5 million to fund eight positions at the Land Division, more than $1.1 million for 15 positions at the state Historic Preservation Division and over $1.6 million for nine permanent positions and four temporary positions to “restore resources for program operations.”

The agency’s mission is to “enhance, protect, conserve and manage” Hawaii’s natural resources. It regulates 1.3 million acres of public lands including forests and parks; 2 million acres of ocean including fisheries, coral reefs, small boat facilities and ocean recreation; and 3 million acres of land in the Conservation District.

However, DLNR generally receives 1.1% or less of the state’s budget, which this year totals $16.9 billion.

Managing Incoming Visitors

As tourism rebounds, parks and wildlife are put in a vulnerable spot as wayward hikers go off-trail where native and rare plants grow. Some tourists have been spotted harassing endangered Hawaiian monk seals. 

During Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Bennette Misalucha raised a concern about tourists who are “not respectful” to wildlife and asked if DLNR can do more to prevent these incidents.

Past reports said monk seals were harassed by visitors. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“That’s a tough question,” Case said, but encouraged more awareness and communication to prevent visitors from touching sea turtles or monk seals. 

“Some people are just disrespectful or some people just don’t know,” Case said, adding Hawaii residents also have harmed monk seals.

DLNR reported last year an intentional killing of a monk seal on Molokai. Marine experts had reported that 15 Hawaiian monk seals were intentionally killed by people on Molokai and Kauai within 13 years. And at least four monk seals have died from gunshots in recent years. 

“Some people think they’re taking all the fish, and while they (the monk seals) do fish, they’re not taking all of the fish,” Case said, adding that beefing up enforcement could get the message out there. 

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz pointed out that DLNR used to have a marine enforcement division and added that he’s working on a bill to reestablish it. 

DLNR is asking for nearly $12 million to fund state parks and fill additional positions.
DLNR is asking for nearly $12 million to fund state parks and fill additional positions. Screenshot

DLNR also needs more money to operate more than 50 state parks, with only 128 park employees to manage those parks across five islands. That’s an average of two people per park, according to Case. 

During the Senate committee meeting, Case said that Hawaii has a low level of funding compared to other state parks in the U.S. Though Hawaii is in the top 20 of the most visited state parks systems, it’s “dead last in park staffing,” she said. 

Case added that DLNR in 2020 raised fees for park entry, parking, camping and lodging to help with revenues. 

Protecting Natural Resources

Some local organizations have been pushing lawmakers to give more funds to DLNR to help protect sensitive areas from invasive species, manage parks and more.

“They manage more than 1 million acres of land,” said Jeff Mikulina, former director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “They’re responsible for all of these endangered plants and invasive species, and that’s just a massive job. Yet they are woefully underfunded, and it shows in our state parks just how embarrassing it is.”  

But some are critical of DLNR and how it manages its lands and performs its duties.

Long-time activist Walter Ritte said the agency should do more to engage the Native Hawaiian community. 

“There has to be a working relationship between DLNR and the Hawaiian people because we’re the ones who want to take care of these resources,” Ritte said. 

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