KA‘U, Hawaii Island — A goat herd rattles through the thicket near Kapapala Ranch’s main gate. They keep their distance, staring at Lani Cran-Petrie’s parked SUV. Two cloud-white Polish sheepdogs scuttle to the fence to welcome her: One is a puppy, Max, the other is slightly older.
She explains how the dogs live with the herd, guarding them from feral pigs when the shepherd is away. With dogs present the goats peacefully chew back the invasive plants, such as strawberry guava and fire trees, that started spreading across the land in the 1960s.
The goats, eventually sold for their meat, are part of Cran-Petrie’s land management strategy for her 34,000-acre ranch. But its lifeblood is a 2,400-head herd of cows, part of the ranch’s cow-calf operation.
The Ka’u ranch, running along Big Island’s southern shore, commands almost three times as much land as Kona, West Hawaii’s population center and tourism hub.
Tranches of that ranchland account for approximately one-third of the Big Island acreage that was targeted almost 20 years ago for transfer to the Department of Agriculture from the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Act 90 called for the transfer and management of non-agricultural park lands and facilities from DLNR to DOA in an effort to ensure the long-term productivity of the state’s agriculture.
But given just over 19,000 acres have been transferred to DOA in the past two decades, accounting for 242 parcels, many ranchers continue to hope that their land will be transferred. More than 100,000 acres of agricultural and pasture land remains under DLNR control, according to a recent report, but those parcels remain in limbo because they have environmental resources of interest to DLNR.
Lawmakers will once again attempt to resolve the problem during the next legislative session, which starts Wednesday.
At Kapapala Ranch HQ, a plantation house built in the late 1800s, Cran-Petrie delivered a presentation heard by several senators in December. It recounts Kapapala’s history, from its sugar plantation to now, with a focus on Act 90 and the associated difficulties of working with the DLNR and its Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
DOA leases are exempt from public auction after leases end, rents are based on the agricultural value of the lands, and they run from 30 to 65 years. Under the DLNR, leases span from 30-day revocable permits to 35 years, are subject to public auction when the leases end, and rents are based on the highest possible rates.
Greatest possible rates for DLNR mean they are not calculated on agricultural value, rather on the highest possible return, which means farmers and ranchers could be priced out of the land.
“This is still going on and this is part of why Act 90 was put in place, to get some foundation under these agricultural enterprises,” Cran-Petrie said.
Her father, who purchased Kapapala in 1977, leased his initial plots on 30-day revocable permits until he was able to get longer leases under revised laws in 1994. This led to Cran-Petrie expanding the ranchlands to its former 1860 state by 2010, when it was a ranch that supplied food to the sugar plantation community under C. Brewer Inc. But 8,216 acres of land integral to feeding their cattle herd remain under 30-day revocable permits, Cran-Petrie said.
“We were 40 when this law passed,” she said. “Now we’ve got kids that don’t want to come back to the ranch because of the uncertainty.”
Two of Hawaii’s priorities clash under Act 90: food production and conservation. The baseline ideologies of DLNR – to enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s natural, cultural and historic resources – and DOA – to promote agricultural production – inform their leasing capabilities.
Agricultural producers feel stymied by DLNR’s lease agreements and conservationists are concerned about DLNR losing control. Over the past two decades, both sides have offered solutions.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a Democrat from Hilo, tried to address the issues during the 2021 legislative session with a bill that would have expanded DLNR’s capacity to negotiate and lengthen agricultural leases to address the revocable permit issue, while also including conservation-based agreements.
Inouye, who introduced Act 90 during her first term, has come to think the issue could be best resolved by empowering DLNR to extend its leases and negotiate more directly with producers.
“I was gone for six years and on my return, I find that Act 90 is still a problem,” the former Hawaii County mayor said. “The biggest issue that I found is the role and the processes of how it’s handled by DLNR’s land division.”
Inouye attempted to expand DLNR’s lease remit last year, through Senate Bill 1168, which would have allowed it to amend and extend current pasture leases; issue new, negotiated leases; determine rent values based on the land’s agricultural value; and convert or alter the uses of the productive lands.
But Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, which represents a majority of Hawaii’s ranchers, took issue with it because the bill’s language did not compel DLNR to do anything, it only gave the agency extra abilities. Executive Director Nicole Galase was likewise concerned that expanding DLNR’s leasing remits would completely disincentivize Act 90 from ever being followed. The council also suggested environmental considerations are part of DOA lease requirements anyway.
The bill was deferred.
Nonetheless a working group formed to ascertain the existing transfer process and its status, as well as finding a resolution to the problem.
The transfer process can take from a matter of months to years, depending on either department’s interest and staffing for land inspection, said Morris Atta, deputy to DOA Chair Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser.
Though 242 parcels have been transferred, DOA is still interested in 50 parcels on the Big Island. DOA currently has 360 leases covering 22,200 acres of land and pasture land; ranching accounts for just 10% of them.
But given the focus on watershed areas, reforestation and protecting endangered species, many of these lands remain withheld – DLNR does not want to relinquish Kapapala Ranch, for example, for koa restoration, hunting and public recreational opportunities.
“Lands can be managed and are managed by other state agencies,” Atta said. “But they are still subject to the DLNR and the government.”
Atta said he was not comfortable answering why the lands are being kept by DLNR, if under DOA they keep the same power. When asked for an interview, DLNR twice referred Civil Beat back to DOA.
Tarnas said it was the most logical solution because DLNR already dealt with a multitude of environmental concerns – such as watershed protection, wildlife services, reforestation and conservation — while DOA predominantly focuses on agriculture.
So it comes back to helping DLNR better manage the agricultural lands, he said. But for the agency to be able to do so, it would need to be given the means to better manage such leases, which requires boosting its capacity.
“We’ve got to help DLNR recognize the reality of running a ranching business,” said Tarnas.
Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council and several other organizations have testified that ranchers are effective stewards of the lands they manage, often citing DLNR’s inability to manage many of its focus areas throughout the state.
“If you go out on the land and some of the ranches, you see examples where land has been taken out for reforestation,” Tarnas said. “And DLNR has not been able to go forward on that reforestation effort.”
On Kapapala Ranch, rancher Cran-Petrie cites this example: 1,257 acres of koa forest transferred to DLNR in 1995 has hardly been managed.
Cran-Petrie says she understands DLNR’s mission but continues to question its ability to manage even more land than it already has, given funding and staffing issues.
Conservation Council of Hawaii has been privy to much of the land issues between ranchers, farmers and DLNR but maintains DLNR needs to keep them. There just needs to be a more cooperative and less adversarial relationship between the parties, according to Executive Director Moana Bjur.
DLNR’s communication needs to improve, Bjur says. And for all parties, egos need to be put aside and clear communication lines need to be implemented.
With ranchers’ resources and DLNR’s priorities, a balance can be struck, she says.
“If we’re all working towards the common good, does it really matter who’s doing the work?” Bjur said. “As long as we’re all in agreement on how it needs to get done and what needs to get done.”
That agreement will be tested in the coming session, as both Inouye and Tarnas introduce their own bills and solutions to the Act 90 saga, following the working group’s recently released suite of recommendations — part of a report published at the end of last year.
Those recommendations touch on easements, empowering the Board of Land and Natural Resources to deliver leases more suitable to agricultural producers, requiring evidence for plans before pasture land is taken for reforesting purposes, and strongly encouraging new legislation to facilitate better communication between producers and the agencies.
Tarnas says he and Inouye hope they will be able to get a bill across the finish line in the coming months.
“This will help the state achieve its goal of keeping good food on the table and protecting the natural resources in public trust,” Tarnas said.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.