The lawmakers tasked with resolving a longtime bureaucratic tug of war have come up with drastically different bills to solve the problem of which state agency is best suited to manage certain agricultural lands.

Both approaches have cleared their first hurdles in the Legislature, but no one seems entirely satisfied with proposals that try to balance the interests of ranching and conservation.

One Senate bill and four House bills were introduced this session by the co-chairs of the Act 90 Working Group, which was charged with finding a solution to the standoff last year.

The issue dates back to 2003, when Act 90 took effect to transfer non-agricultural park lands managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture. At the heart of the dispute are the departmental mandates, namely that DOA exists to promote agricultural production and that DLNR is charged with conserving natural resources.

But important natural resources and agricultural lands are not mutually exclusive.

Kapapala Ranch leases a large amount of DLNR land on the Big Island. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

The Act 90 Working Group was formed last year to address the roughly 100,000 acres of land identified in the 2003 law that were still in DLNR hands.

A central issue is that each parcel of land transferred has to have sign-off from both the Board of Agriculture and the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

DLNR has transferred about 19,000 acres to DOA, accounting for 242 parcels of land, since Act 90 was passed. But agricultural lands remain with DLNR because they are also home to important cultural and natural resources.

Rep. David Tarnas. Jonathan Rawle

The working group, co-chaired by Rep. David Tarnas and Sen. Lorraine Inouye, came up with a list of recommendations at the end of last year. Those on either side of the discussion emerged from the effort divided as to what the best resolution would be.

The House Deals Some Solutions

The group’s recommendations included several legislative fixes, which Tarnas has divided into four bills in the House this session.

Food and agricultural organizations were relatively supportive of three of the bills at a Water and Land Committee hearing on Tuesday, which would authorize DOA to inquire with DLNR about easements on parcels to access landlocked reserves, require proof of funding and planning before pulling lands out of agricultural use, revise DLNR’s agricultural multi-use classification and employ a multi-use land specialist.

The key sticking point for the organizations was House Bill 1660, which would empower DLNR to deliver lengthier leases and provide more appropriate lease rates for agricultural use. Ranchers felt if the bill were passed, and the other three failed, no land would be transferred.

“We don’t want this to be an excuse not to transfer over to DOA,” said Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council Executive Director Nicole Galase.

She added that conservation of land was already built into ranchers’ ideology. But making land “multi-use” under DLNR could lead ranchers to stop dealing with invasive species and conservation as part of their work, to ensure the land is transferred to DOA. Galase said it would not change anything for those ranchers who wanted to see Act 90’s purpose fulfilled.

A Department of Land and Natural Resources map showing land parcels managed under 30-day revocable permits on the Big Island. Courtesy: DLNR

Micah Munekata, of food production advocacy group Ulupono Initiative, said the measure would be an act of “kicking the can down the road” in light of the state’s focus on boosting food production.

Tarnas said he was simply fulfilling the working group’s recommendations because of the myriad of interests that need to be managed on such land – most of which DLNR is charged with doing – from watersheds and cattle to endangered species and forests.

“I recognize that that’s not what the ranchers want to hear,” Tarnas said. “We have these public lands that we need to use for multiple public purposes and agricultural production is one of those public purposes.”

The eventual goal was to implement Act 90, which did not necessarily compel DLNR to transfer all agricultural land, just that which was appropriate, Tarnas says.

The House Water and Land Committee, chaired by Tarnas, passed all four bills with amendments. The bills now head to the Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke.

The Senate Goes All-In

Inouye has a different solution through Senate Bill 2068, vexing the conservation side of the Act 90 argument.

Senator Lorraine Inouye debate on carbon tax in the Senate.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye was a co-introducer of Act 90 in 2003. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The omnibus bill calls for several actions to ease the flow of land between the agencies, repealing board approvals for transfers, as well as requiring DLNR’s board to extend leases to help ranchers and farmers using their land to secure loans.

The bill has gone through the Senate’s Water and Land and Agriculture and Environment committees relatively seamlessly, except for concerns from DLNR. The bill was amended to specifically clarify agriculture as “intensive agricultural, special livestock, and pasture uses,” and called for a one-year notice period for lease withdrawal for tenants.

The bill also addresses easements and DLNR reforestation efforts.

DLNR declined to comment on the pending legislation with Civil Beat, but according to its testimony, the bill was “predicated on the notion that lands historically zoned ‘agricultural’ are not important for natural and cultural resource protection.”

The agriculture community has maintained that natural and cultural resource protection is in their best interests, and would not change if they had a different landlord.

An original co-introducer of Act 90 in 2003, Inouye says that even land under DOA leases are under DLNR’s jurisdiction and that the two agencies cooperate on a regular basis anyway.

Another measure in the bill aims to protect leaseholders from unplanned takeovers by DLNR for reforestation, which has not been done effectively in the past, according to Inouye.

Plus, in consideration of the state’s focus on boosting food production, DOA needed to be able to provide its expertise where it is needed.

“They know what food sustainability is,” Inouye said, adding that Act 90 applied to more than food, but also to the forestry and nursery industries.

Morris Atta, deputy to DOA Chair Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, said the bill was not completely perfect for DOA or ranchers.

“It’s an imperfect vehicle but it’s moving in the right direction,” Atta said.

DLNR negotiates with ranchers to provide public access for hiking and hunting across leased ranch lands. Moana Bjur

Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Committee for Agriculture and Environment, says the bill ensures productive agricultural lands “are not prematurely or unnecessarily displaced” and ensures Hawaii’s path towards its food production goals.

“This safeguard is intended to minimize the possibility that productive agricultural lands will remain idle and fallow solely due to inherent delays in executing well intentioned government actions and policies,” Gabbard said in an email.

Lateral Acts

Both Tarnas and Inouye are relatively confident in their bills’ prospects.

Tarnas’ bills are now headed to the Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke. He hopes all four will be scheduled for a hearing but says he believes all of them will have some impact on their own.

On the Senate side, Inouye’s bill is awaiting a joint hearing before the Ways and Means and Judiciary committees, chaired by Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz and Karl Rhoads, respectively.

Inouye says she is hopeful because she believes both are proponents of agriculture and food production in Hawaii.

The Judiciary Committee is considering scheduling a hearing for Inouye’s bill on Thursday or Friday, according to Rhoads.

“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.

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