Native Hawaiians are split on her nomination to lead one of the state’s largest and most impactful agencies.

A groundswell of opposition is growing among local conservationists and some prominent Native Hawaiians who want to see Gov. Josh Green withdraw Dawn Chang, a former deputy state attorney general and private consultant, as his nominee to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Chang’s history working on behalf of some of the state’s most powerful developers and her record on Hawaii’s unique burial site matters, including a saga in which crews unearthed hundreds of remains at Kawaiahao Church for a facility that ultimately was never built, should disqualify her from overseeing DLNR, they say. 

As of Friday, more than 800 people had signed an online petition started by Hui Iwi Kuamo‘o, a grassroots group that aims to protect ancestral Hawaiian burial sites, calling for Chang to leave. 

But others in the Native Hawaiian community and those who are involved in land use and environmental issues called Chang a consistent advocate for Hawaiians and the environment. They’re not bothered by actions that happened decades ago or her work for the business community.

Dawn Chang
Dawn Chang is Gov. Josh Green’s controversial nominee to lead DLNR. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

The sprawling yet short-handed state agency often struggles to fully manage and protect its 1.3 million acres of public lands, 3 million acres of nearshore waters, and numerous cultural sites.

Green announced Chang’s appointment in December. The Senate hearings on her confirmation aren’t expected to take place until March.

Nonetheless, many in the Hawaiian community remain divided over Chang’s nomination. If confirmed, she would become the state’s first ever Native Hawaiian woman to chair the Board of Land and Natural Resources. Further, her top deputies at DLNR, former Hawaii Land Trust CEO Laura Kaakua and former Department of Hawaiian Home Lands planner Kaleo Manuel, are both Hawaiian as well.

Chang called their combined leadership at the agency “historic.” 

“I think the time is right for someone with my skill sets,” Chang said Thursday, noting there’s growing distrust of government in the community, and the tension over land use at Mauna Kea, Waimanalo and Kahuku was “a wake-up call” to officials.

“We’re sort of at a crossroads,” she said.

“I’m a process person. There are so many other people than me that are so much brighter on substance,” she added.

Community engagement, Chang said, is her strong suit. She’s not scared to make tough and consequential decisions “so long as an engaging and thorough community process is followed.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Water and Land Committee that will eventually take up the nomination, said she’s open to Chang’s nomination and believes she’s qualified to serve as director. 

Inouye added, however, that her office started getting deluged with emails from community members opposing Chang’s nomination even before Green announced her appointment, and that she’s “troubled” by some of the concerns raised by constituents about Chang’s past.

She said that she’ll let the hearing process play out before deciding whether to support Chang’s nomination.

Inouye is also conducting a survey of her predominantly Hawaiian constituents on how they feel about Chang’s leading DLNR. So far, the results are mixed, Inouye said.

‘Contentious And Challenging Issues’

Prior to becoming DLNR director, Chang ran a small consulting company, Ku’iwalu, which helped prominent developers such as Howard Hughes Corp., General Growth Properties, Outrigger Enterprises and The Kobayashi Group advance lucrative projects by engaging with local community members and cultural descendants of the ancestral burials on and around their properties.

She also helped develop a cultural monitoring program for any burials found during the construction of Honolulu’s rail project and consulted various state and federal agencies on a myriad of projects across Hawaii.

Chang said in an interview last week that her main goal wasn’t necessarily to see those projects completed but rather to bring their powerful backers to the table with community members.

High rise construction continues in Kakaako as part of the Ward Village project. Chang, as a private consultant, worked with Howard Hughes Corp. on culturally sensitive issues such as ancestral Hawaiian burials in the area. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

“I did take on very contentious and challenging issues, but I agreed to take them on not to advocate for the project but to facilitate a genuine community engagement process,” Chang said. 

She said she would tell her clients: “Your project will have to stand and fall on its own.”

Nonetheless, Ku’iwalu described itself on its website as a “company that specializes in building community support for economic development projects.”

That website is no longer live – it was removed as part of making Ku’iwalu inactive, Chang said. But its contents are still available using the Wayback Machine internet archive.

“What she does is attempt to address community concerns in ways that allow the project to go forward. She’s paid by the developer to make sure that the project goes forward,” said David Kimo Frankel, a former director at the Sierra Club of Hawaii, a former attorney at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. and a longtime legal advocate on local environmental and cultural issues. 

Having Chang lead DLNR is like having “the fox guard the hen house,” Frankel said.

A ‘Painful’ Legacy At Kawaiahao

Frankel and other opponents further say that Chang is ill-suited to lead DLNR in protecting Hawaii’s cultural sites based on her consulting work for Kawaiahao Church nearly 20 years ago.  

The renowned church in the heart of Honolulu infamously unearthed more than 700 burial remains on its property for a future multi-purpose center without conducting an archeological inventory survey first. The Hawaii Supreme Court eventually ruled that the church had violated burial laws in its handling of those remains, and the center was never built.

In its decision siding against the church, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals mentioned Ku’iwalu by name as advising the church that “preparation of an AIS would be costly and take considerable time.”

Kawaiahao Church kakaako condo1. 4 may 2016
Chang also consulted for Kawaiahao Church, recommending that an archeological inventory survey for its planned multipurpose center would be lengthy and costly. The church’s decision to move forward without one proved to be the wrong move, as courts found it had violated state burial laws. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Emails as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit against the church further show that Chang advised the church early on to meet with state burial officials, who were part of DLNR, and see if they’d reconsider their initial requirement of an AIS to build the multipurpose center. Eventually, those State Historic Preservation Division officials did reverse their decision.

“The Church will be better off” without an AIS, Chang told Kawaiahao officials in a 2006 email.

That stance early on in a project that went on to generate enormous community controversy is what’s largely driving the opposition to Chang’s nomination.

“I don’t want people to walk away thinking — and this is a little hard for me — that Kawaiahao was easy. It was hard on all of us. It pained me,” an emotional Chang said last week. “There was never an intention to disturb any iwi — and not this many.”

However, Chang said that she was just one voice in that discussion over how to proceed at Kawaiahao. Both the church and SHPD had its own lawyers advising them too, she said.

Opponents of her leading DLNR are inflating her role in that matter, she said.

Further, she only advised revisiting the AIS after the church removed an underground parking lot from its plans, she said.

“I didn’t make any decisions. I’m sorry that people have interpreted my recommendation as being the basis upon which SHPD makes their decision. I don’t have that kind of authority or power,” Chang said.

“I won’t dispute that I was a consultant for the church, and that they did take seriously my recommendation and my advice. But it was one of many voices that were part of this very difficult decision,” she added.

Still, Frankel, who represented the parties that sued the church while at Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said Chang advised her clients “to circumvent the law — a law that she’s now going to be in charge of.”

Prominent Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and advocate Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu said the saga at Kawaiahao was very nuanced and complex. The church leaders who opted to bypass an AIS were also Hawaiian. There weren’t any easy answers at the time about the best path forward, she said.

“By virtue of the fact that I consider myself a critical thinking Hawaiian, I can’t do what I used to do 20 years ago, and 20 years ago I would’ve hammered on people unnecessarily for doing something I didn’t like,” said Wong-Kalu, a former chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council. 

“But in this case, with the plethora of details and the complex context of this situation, I cannot in good conscience go and hammer on Dawn. And I had to work with Dawn on many other things. I got to know her as a person. I don’t see Dawn as someone with malice in her heart.”

The Mapulehu Incident

Still, some of Chang’s critics see Chang’s role at Kawaiahao as part of a decades-long pattern of going lax on Hawaii burial law. 

One of Chang’s most vocal prominent critics, Edward Halealoha Ayau, recalled working with Chang in the early 1990s on the first major test of the state’s new burial law, when she was a deputy attorney general and he was a SHPD officer. 

In 1991, farm crews tilling land for a harvest at Mapulehu on Molokai deposited the ancestral remains of some 60 Hawaiians in a “push pile” there. The lessee of that land was identified in burial council minutes as Ellen Osborne, and she didn’t inform state authorities that the remains were unearthed as required under state law, according to a December 1991 article in the Honolulu Advertiser. 

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu leads protocols held near the Makalapa CINCPAC and military housing entrance in opposition to the Red Hill fuel leak. December 12, 2021
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu: “I got to know her as a person. I don’t see Dawn as someone with malice in her heart.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Osborne faced a $10,000 fine per each set of remains, meaning up to $600,000 total, Ayau recounted in an interview last week. In his SHPD job, Ayau recommended a $300,000 fine.

Chang, however, recommended that the state settle with Osborne for the minimum $10,000.

“That’s the wrong message to send,” said Ayau, who’s now a prominent advocate for re-interring Hawaiian remains and recovering important cultural items from collections abroad. Chang, he recalled, told him that they needed to show compassion to Osborne.

Ayau recalled his response. “I have compassion for the dead who are disturbed, and I have compassion for the law,” he told Chang.

Chang, meanwhile, said of the Mapulehu desecration that “it was important to get a win” of any kind in order to set the precedent across the state that land owners and lessees would face real consequences under the new law for disturbing burial sites.

Ayau “thinks monetary value was extremely important, but in our minds it was important to get (Osborne) to stop, to get her to pay a fine and establish a precedent and a message in the community,” Chang said last week. “It wasn’t just about money.”

Flashbacks To Carleton Ching?

In 2015, Josh Green, then a state senator, was the first member of the Senate to publicly oppose another controversial DLNR nominee with strong ties to private development: Carleton Ching.

“We need a Director of DLNR who has a proven record of fighting to protect and preserve our natural and cultural resources,” Green said at the time. “Not a career lobbyist for the development industry who has a record of calling for the elimination of cultural and environmental protections.” 

Eventually, Gov. David Ige, Green’s predecessor, would withdraw the nomination of Ching, who had served as a lobbyist for the developer Castle and Cooke.

DLNR chair nominee Carleton Ching after he paused, his eyes welled up with tears during senate confirmation hearing. 12 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Carleton Ching faced a grueling and ultimately unsuccessful bid to lead DLNR. Josh Green, then a state senator, was among the first to publicly call for Ching’s nomination to be withdrawn. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/ 2015)

Whether the community opposition against Green’s own nominee will sway enough members of the Senate to oppose Chang in similar fashion remains to be seen. Some opponents have compared the two DLNR nominations. 

“Carleton Ching is a good person who was a developer,” Green said in a statement Friday. “Dawn Chang is quite different. She is a Native Hawaiian woman and cultural consultant who has devoted her career to land rights and Native Hawaiian issues.”

Frankel, however, called Green’s nomination of Chang “more egregious” than Ching’s bid to lead DLNR. “We had no evidence that Carleton Ching gave someone advice to circumvent the law,” he said, referring to the Kawaiahao matter.

But others, such as prominent Hawaii island farmer and president of Sustainable Energy Hawaii Richard Ha said that Chang will be a valuable asset to lead DLNR.

Ha said Chang impressed him during numerous meetings with Big Island community members dealing with difficult topics, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope. He said that he would stake his reputation on her being an effective leader who would uphold DLNR’s duties to protect Hawaii’s land and waters.

“I’ve been in the trenches with her when she met with community people, and it’s really tough. I knew who she was because of it. She was trying to communicate, and her heart was pure. We became friends for life because of it,” Ha said.

Inouye, meanwhile, said that Chang has expressed more of an openness than her DLNR predecessors at transferring more of the land that conservation agency controls over to the state Department of Agriculture, as required under Act 90. 

The issue has long been a bureaucratic tug of war among state officials. Inouye, who introduced Act 90 some 20 years ago, wants to see progress on those land transfers.

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, a legal land-use expert who served with Chang on the state Land Use Commission, said that throughout its existence DLNR has been “territorial” and firmly asserted its control over how the state’s lands and waters should be managed, as well as how Hawaii’s ancestral burials should be treated.

“The cultural reform needed at DLNR is to start to see themselves as co-stewards and partners with the public, particularly the rural communities that live with these resources,” Scheuer said. 

“I believe Dawn has history in her career that points in both ways, and that a thoughtful Senate confirmation process should keep this in mind. My personal observation of her on the Land Use Commission was as a consistent advocate for Native Hawaiian rights and environmental protections.”

Chang said she’s up to the challenge.

“I recognize that this is a very difficult position, and I have been involved in some contentious decisions,” she said last week. “It’s hard work. But if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

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