Long-standing plans to transfer agricultural land from Hawaii’s land and resources agency to the Department of Agriculture encountered new difficulties this week in the Legislature.

Amendments added to a bill intended to help further facilitate the transfer have introduced provisions that could raise concerns from both agricultural and environmental groups.

House Bill 1658 was originally intended to ensure access to land currently managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Amendments introduced by Sen. Lorraine Inouye at a hearing on Wednesday added requirements that DOA accept all land transfers offered by DLNR, that DLNR keep control of conservation land and that lessees of DOA land containing important natural resources develop conservation plans.

The amendments could reintroduce long simmering disagreements between environmental and agricultural interest groups over which agency is best suited to manage state farm and ranch lands and their lessees.

HB 1658 was one of four bills introduced this year by Rep. David Tarnas to facilitate the land transfer. The bills reflected the recommendations of the Act 90 Working Group, a coalition of lawmakers and agency representatives co-chaired by Tarnas and Inouye. Another bill growing out of the working group’s findings was introduced by Inouye.

Three of the four House bills died in the Senate and Inouye’s bill was killed in the House by Tarnas.

Most of the land identified for transfer to DOA is on Hawaii island and is being used for cattle ranching. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

The amendments introduced by Inouye this week were added to the only remaining bill reflecting the work of the Act 90 group, HB 1658.

The amended bill passed the Senate’s agricultural and water and land committees without objection.

Efforts To Change The Law

The Legislature passed Act 90 in 2003, to facilitate the transfer of non-agricultural park lands from DLNR to DOA, upon mutual agreement of the agencies’ boards.

By the start of this year, just 19,000 acres had been transferred due to DLNR’s concerns that natural resources within those agricultural parcels could be mismanaged or lost under DOA stewardship.

The Act 90 Working Group was formed last year to investigate the key hurdles to the transfer and identify solutions.

Rep. David Tarnas Jonathan Rawle

Tarnas’ bills reflected the group’s recommendations, such as empowering DLNR to give better lease terms to farmers or require the development of plans and funding for conservation projects on agricultural lands.

The Senate bill introduced by Inouye addressed several different issues in the transfer process, including removing the need for both agencies to agree on lands identified for transfer – a key sticking point for DLNR, which wants to oversee natural resource conservation on the land in question.

The “no-questions-asked” transfer of lands was what Tarnas said he and DLNR had originally objected to.

“I wanted to stay true to Act 90 but (Inouye’s bill) directly changed Act 90,” said Tarnas.

The amended HB 1658 eliminates the requirement for mutual agreement.

Senator Lorraine Inouye listens to Chair Menor during hearing. Capitol. 6 feb 2017
Sen. Lorraine Inouye Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For her part, Inouye says the difficulties have been going on for too long and that Act 90 is out of date.

“Let’s move forward, this generation, so that we don’t extend issues and problems for the generations to come,” Inouye said.

Moana Bjur, executive director of the Conservation Council of Hawaii, says she believes the bill was hastily amended to meet the filing deadline.

Bjur also found language in the amended bill regarding the roles of the agencies in management of the land transfer concerning.

The fate of the bill remains unclear.

“To be completely honest, I’m not sure this bill will move forward anyway,” Bjur said.

Next Steps

The revised bill has now returned to the House for further consideration. Inouye is hopeful that the House will be amenable to her revisions.

Tarnas, however, is optimistic that the hurdles to the land transfers can be overcome by the end of the next session.

Next year DLNR and DOA could be under new leadership following this year’s gubernatorial elections.

“If it ends up that the Legislature is not taking action on it this session, the agencies will still have to move forward,” Tarnas said. “The ball is in their court and the agencies need to continue their work.”

“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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