A Maui Rancher Prepares To Lose 3,400 Acres To Conservation

For the state, the purchase was a "huge victory" for the environment. For Brendan Balthazar, it was a devastating loss of agricultural land.

Brendan Balthazar herds cattle at Diamond B Ranch in Upcountry Maui. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Brendan Balthazar never imagined that at 73 years old, he would have to reckon with giving up everything he’d built on the ranch to make way for the state.

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He had mended each fence, welded every water trough and invested an estimated $400,000 into managing the 3,400-acre swath he has leased since 2006.

But the 2020 sale of the property put the land on a new course — one destined for conservation after more than a century of ranching. The state plans to move more than 2,100 acres out of agriculture this year, and take control of the rest by 2029.

“Once you lose it, it’s gone,” Balthazar said. “It’s lost forever.”

Brendan Balthazar gets ready to head out to move cattle on his ranch, July 7, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Brendan Balthazar has watched over the decades as the threats to Hawaii’s rangelands have mounted. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023

The property stretches all the way up to the boundary of the national park guarding Haleakala’s 10,023-foot summit. The rolling green hills on the bottom were once home to Kula’s historic Erehwon Ranch – “nowhere” spelled backwards – founded by the Von Tempsky family in the late 1800s.

Since taking over the lease 17 years ago from another rancher who’d fallen ill, Balthazar set out to prove he was the land’s best steward. He cleared invasive trees, fertilized the grass and built a water system to feed troughs high upslope above the clouds.

Some of the historic ranch’s old buildings are more than 100 years old. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

He dreamed that one day he’d pass the lease down to the next generation, preserving the paniolo tradition that’s at risk of vanishing along with Maui’s open spaces.

Then his landlord, a private family trust, decided to sell. At first, the rancher thought it was a blessing when he learned the state was buying the property for $9.8 million, protecting it from development.

But Balthazar soon found out that the state wasn’t planning to leave the old ranch in agriculture.

DLNR says the 2003 law that directs the agency to transfer its agricultural-leased lands to the state’s Department of Agriculture doesn’t apply to this property. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The Department of Land and Natural Resources has a different goal for its new Kamehamenui Forest Reserve: Protect the uppermost reaches of the property for endangered wildlife and plant 433,800 trees in phases over the coming years to bolster Maui’s fresh water supply, according to agency documents.

At a time when drought is more common and demand for water is expected to rise, the state estimates that reforestation could produce an additional 296 million gallons of water per year.

“The Kamehamenui lands, which for millennia supported native forests, were for sale in 2016 on the open market and threatened with development,” Scott Fretz, Maui branch manager for DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said in a statement. “Their purchase for conservation and native ecosystem purposes was a huge victory.”

The acquisition of the property — nestled between the existing conservation lands of the national park and the state’s adjoining Kula Forest Reserve — also offers the hope of restoring the band of forests called “mauna lei” that once encircled Haleakala. In the upper reaches of the property, the state aims to protect habitat for endangered species like the nene, hoary bat and Haleakala silversword.

Thousands of feet below, the state is eyeing the pastures meticulously maintained by Balthazar as a blank slate to plant native trees like koa and sandalwood. The government also plans to offer ample recreational opportunities for residents and tourists alike, with miles of new hiking trails, picnic areas and places to “grow and gather forest products.”

DLNR declined to provide further information on the project or its staffing plans, saying that it was in the process of putting together a proposal that still needed to go through public vetting.

“This is the best transition plan that they can develop to balance your interest and the importance of the watershed protection, fencing plans and overall management of the Kamehamenui Forest Reserve, which is critical to ensure additional supply of water resources to Maui,” DLNR Chair Dawn Chang said in a letter to Balthazar.

Ohia trees grow on Balthazar’s leased land in Kula. Research shows that Hawaii’s well-managed rangelands can also help the natural ecosystem by enhancing the islands’ freshwater supply, providing fire protection and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

But the shift away from using the land for agriculture comes at a time when there’s growing anxiety over the need to bolster Hawaii’s food security. It’s harder than ever to keep cattle in Hawaii, and Balthazar’s herd today is less than half of its height of 1,500 head. He leases 7,500 acres for grazing across Kaupo, Haiku and Kula, which includes the 3,400 acres he’s set to lose.

It isn’t only Balthazar and his crew that will take a hit. In the heart of his corral he built on the property, he installed a $12,000 scale to serve other small ranchers who needed a facility to process cattle. He also arranges hauling and selling to market.

Balthazar wasn’t born into one of Maui’s powerful ranching families that have held onto tens of thousands of acres for more than a century. Securing Maui real estate for his cattle has been tough. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023
A cow is branded at Diamond B Ranch on Maui, July 7, 2023.
A cow is branded at Diamond B Ranch. Balthazar serves as a facilitator for other small ranchers who need help processing cattle. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023

“Every ranch that fails is a loss to the whole industry,” said Jimmy Greenwell, a retired rancher and longtime advocate for the business.

Jimmy Greenwell is a longtime advocate for ranchers and their stewardship of rangelands. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023) David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

In recent years, Hawaii’s cattle industry has only grown more fragile, with massive swaths of once-fertile pastures eaten away by invasive plants, deer, drought and development.

In 1937, more than 2 million acres in Hawaii were classified as “grazing lands,” according to the state. By 2015, only 750,000 acres of pasture were left.

“There’s a lot of land that requires a lot of management,” Greenwell said. “Who’s in a better position to care for that resource and fund that cost than those ranchers who have been doing so — some for over a century?”

Brendan Balthazar and a worker head out with their dogs to move cattle on the ranch, July 7, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
At the time Brendan Balthazar took over the lease in 2006, he said his former landlord didn’t have intentions to sell the property. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023

Balthazar grew up in Makawao, where his father was the postmaster. His first foray into the paniolo world was when his grandfather entered him into the keiki version of a bull ride during one of the town’s earliest Fourth of July rodeos. He stuck it out on the back of a calf.

As a young man, he worked by day in construction and later as a county firefighter. But at night, under the glow of his truck’s headlights, he’d practice roping in the arena he built in his backyard.

In 1968, with around 40 cows to his name, Balthazar registered Diamond B Ranch. Over the next five decades, the ranch grew to 1,500 head across leased land on Maui and Molokai.

Balthazar and his crew recently rounded up a group of calves for branding, vaccination and deworming. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)
Balthazar and his crew  using a lasso to capture calves to be branded, vaccinated and dewormed.
Lassoing 1
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Balthazar and his crew  using a lasso to capture calves to be branded, vaccinated and dewormed.
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Balthazar and his crew  using a lasso to capture calves to be branded, vaccinated and dewormed.
Lassoing 4
Balthazar and his crew  using a lasso to capture calves to be branded, vaccinated and dewormed.
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But then the deer population exploded, and drought starved Maui’s pasturelands. He was forced to round up part of his herd to prevent overgrazing. He scrambled to afford to feed the mothers and their calves for months with alfalfa cubes, shipped in from the mainland.

Although the drought has eased a bit since then, Balthazar, like many of Maui’s ranchers, has kept his herd down to prepare for the worst. Forecasters have predicted that drought could hit the islands hard by later this summer, fueling the risk of wildfire.

When he loses the Kula land, Balthazar’s estimates his business will tank at least 30%. Besides the part-timers, he pays three employees to work the ranch day-to-day, all of whom he houses on properties he owns.

“My employees are like family. I need to take care of them,” Balthazar said. “Who do I let go?”

Cattle are herded into a corral at Diamond B Ranch in Upcountry Maui, July 7, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Balthazar used to run almost 300 cattle on the Kula property, but the drought cut his numbers in half. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023

When the state in 2020 announced the purchase of the property, Maui residents, conservationists and agricultural producers alike were relieved to find out that the state was buying the land that could have otherwise been developed into multimillion-dollar gentleman’s estates.

Supporters of the state’s plans say that the land offers an ideal habitat for native tree reforestation. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

Mike Spalding, who lives nearby and helped orchestrate the purchase, said the public land will one day offer a rare chance for both tourists and residents to view native forests. In his view, the shift away from agriculture is a fair trade for one of the most significant restoration projects ever undertaken in Hawaii.

“Maui is very lucky to have this property,” Spalding said.

But others who lived nearby began to worry: What would happen to the longtime rancher next door? Last year, when DLNR announced a community meeting about the new project, there was no mention of Balthazar or his cattle that would need to move to make way for the reserve.

Balthazar constructed 45,000-gallon water tanks thousands of feet higher than the road and utility lines below, which is part of the sprawling system he uses to pump water to his cattle’s troughs. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

The old-timers had watched over the years as the cattleman poured money and sweat into the land, even constructing a water system consisting of multiple tanks holding almost 200,000 gallons, pumped through miles of pipeline that snaked thousands of feet up through pastures to feed nearly two dozen troughs. And unlike many other pastures down the road, Balthazar carefully eradicated invasives that choke grass and make it easier for heavy rains to wash topsoil down streams and into the ocean.

Harold Doe, who used to work in Polipoli for DLNR, said the agency has long struggled to find enough staff to care for the forest. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

Meanwhile, the state has long struggled to keep the explosion of brush cut back on its hunting grounds and hiking trails within the forest reserve next door.

“They can’t even maintain what they got now,” said Harold Doe, a retired DLNR enforcement officer who lives across the street from Balthazar’s ranch. “How are they going to do that?”

After a storm ravaged the Kula Forest Reserve in late 2021, it took almost a year and a half for the state to reopen a popular recreation area located within it to the public.

Last month, another concerned neighbor launched an online petition to “preserve the paniolo lifestyle and keep agriculture lands.” In just a few weeks it garnered more than 1,200 signatures.

Ranchland in Upcountry Maui near Kula leased by Brendan Balthazar, July 7, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Ranchland in Upcountry Maui near Kula leased by Brendan Balthazar, looking out at the West Maui mountains. Many of the pasturelands around his ranch are overgrown with chest-high weeds. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023
Brendan Balthazar moves cattle on his ranch, July 7, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Brendan Balthazar runs a total of 500 to 700 cattle on his leased lands across Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023) Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023

Kelsey Manglallan put out the petition to request a compromise. She wants the state to use the uppermost portion of the land to conserve the fragile ecosystem that’s home to endangered plants and birds, which would leave enough space for the government to connect its existing hiking trail system to the new property.

But she hopes the bottom of the property, home to the richest stretches of green pastures, will remain in the rancher’s hands.

“It’s been in ag for over 100 years,” she said. “And it’s taken care of by Brendan.”

Brendan Balthazar and his ranch hands built all of the fencing that cuts across the mountain to keep cattle from overgrazing one section of land more than another. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023 Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

Dressed in blue denim and a cowboy hat, Balthazar saddled up his horse on a recent Friday morning to round up some of his cattle.

He and his ranch hand shifted the horses down the slope from a couple hundred feet away to guide the cows through each narrow paddock gate. With a few extra hands, they vaccinated, dewormed and branded the new calves in the corral he will have to break down in the years to come.

Ranching has become especially tough on Maui in recent years because of the explosion of deer and invasive weeds. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

“I kept praying that things would change, and someone would see the importance of saving the little ag land we have,” Balthazar said.

Over decades as a rancher, Balthazar has heard politicians promise to preserve ag land more times than he can count. Both of Hawaii’s former governors, David Ige and Neil Abercrombie, promised to double food production by 2030. In the months ahead, Balthazar will see whether the promises made during last year’s election season are kept.

A decade ago, Balthazar purchased a herd of 300 sheep, solely because they’d eat invasive fireweed down to the root. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

But he also knows that, unless someone tends livestock or farms crops, it’s unlikely they understand the full extent of agricultural work. The general public may think life as a rancher is riding off on a horse like the Marlboro man, but Balthazar said it’s mostly fixing the occasional broken water line at 1 a.m. in the rain or spending hours in the hot sun clearing weeds.

When he gets the chance, he also tends a small orchard tucked high into the Kula pasturelands. It makes him wonder: “How many places like this do we have left?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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