How To Turn A ‘North Star’ Plan For Fire-Prone Lands Into Reality - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Authors

Michael Buck

Michael Buck is a former Hawaii State Forester and Water Commissioner. He holds a masters of science in forest conservation and tropical agriculture.

Peter Adler

Peter Adler is a planner and mediator with a particular focus on issues that involve challenging technical and public policy challenges.

We can create an initial plan to protect the community from future wildfire risk in just six months. All it takes is nine knowledgeable people willing to work at it.

Editor’s note: This is the final of two Community Voices from the authors on a risk-reduction roadmap for Hawaii following the wildfires. Read the first part here.

Over the years, we have learned (and relearned) two important principles for making headway on stubborn public problems.

First, don’t make big plans for other people’s properties if they are not at the table. Second, budgets are where big ideas always come to ground. Never make a plan without cost estimates.

There is also a third principle. Too often there is a hazy line between big, blue, 30,000-foot visions that too often turn out to be hallucinations: Always start with a technically and scientifically well-informed end in mind understanding it is just a jump-off and will always change along the way.

Creating a notional “North Star” is the first step on the much longer journey we see ahead for fire-prone lands. It is a needed predicate for conceptualizing serious landscape changes and setting matters in motion.

North Star strategies define collective ambitions and create sturdier definitions of purpose and impacts. They are launch pads. After Lahaina, we need one.

How Can It Be Done?

Establishing an initial North Star doesn’t require massive investments or big, ponderous commissions.

To kick things off, it needs political independence and a few experts willing to meet, pool their hard-earned knowledge, work together, and create the beacon.

A well-informed North Star coupled with a roadmap for the fire threatened portion of West Maui has the potential to:

  • create a more resilient wildland landscape that will support local values;
  • enhance West Maui’s economy;
  • increase available water for legal users;
  • strengthen private, county, and state wildfire fire prevention and suppression capabilities;
  • prepare currently fallow agricultural lands for future forest and food production;
  • provide the foundation for more detailed planning and implementation; and
  • serve as a robust model for other at-risk communities on all islands.

These are the broad goals for an initial North Star exercise for West Maui. Once there is a beacon in mind, a shared vision can provide initial goals, a way to assess tradeoffs, and calculate some possible incentives.

It can also be done in six months.

What Is The Initial Move?

The first step is carefully assembling a short-term working group, or “WG.” We believe it can be done with nine people who have relevant knowledge and expertise who will agree to work together, integrate their best knowledge sets, pool relevant data, analyze options, and create the picture of where we want to be in the next decade.

The dialogue that ensues must be very disciplined and stay focused on a long term “Whole Landscape” concept. Those discussions will also lead to identifying likely tradeoffs and creating a roadmap that anticipates what one of our colleagues calls much needed “Courageous Conversations” between diverse landowners and community stakeholders.

Honoapiilani Highway wends through Lahaina and West Maui, Sept. 26, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
We need knowledgeable, independent people to craft a “North Star” that will guide Maui and the state through resurrecting an area above Lahaina that will protect the community from future wildfires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Who Might Compose The WG?

Whomever supports and leads such an effort must look for specific expertise, knowledge, and experience in a few critical subject areas and not be slaves to personal agendas or ideologies. Members of a team like this need to represent themselves, not their respective organizations.

For a sturdy landscape level ambition, a WG would need the following kinds of expertise:

  • fire science
  • forest management, reforestation, and agroforestry
  • crop and animal agriculture
  • hydrology and water storage
  • water infrastructure and irrigation
  • knowledge of and comfort with West Maui’s diverse community interests
  • state and county planning regimes
  • Hawaiian agricultural practices and values

What Might A North Start Study Area Look Like?

We think a West Maui WG could examine the agricultural lands and water infrastructures bounded by the Mahinahina stream to the north and Launiupoko stream to the south and running mauka to the West Maui Watershed Partnership lands. The work can be accomplished in a maximum of six months with at least two face-to-face meetings and more regular bi-weekly zoom calls in between.

What Would The WG Aspire To See As Part Of A North Star?

Using a science-based joint fact-finding approach, and honed by management experience, the working group might profitably look to integrating strategies that:

  • rotate grazing for sheep or goats to reduce flammable grass fuels;
  • enhance the existing watershed forests with expanded riparian buffer zones;
  • create “green” fuel-breaks located around utility corridors and wildland/urban interfaces;
  • sequentially reforest large tracts with nitrogen fixing tree species in protected and utility areas;
  • consider other potentially successful land rehabilitation efforts such as agroforests, community and private orchards, and living fence posts;
  • restore West Maui’s indigenous wetland agricultural systems to increase aquifer recharge, provide additional water storage; and
  • invest in repair, modernization and maintenance of century-old water storage and delivery systems.

What Can Be Delivered In Six Months?

Well-constructed efforts need identified “deliverables.”

The output of a six-month North Star project can be a consensus plan for a desired future condition for West Maui and a punch list of practical first steps needed for renovating former agricultural lands in West Maui into a more productive and fire-resilient landscape.

This modest but important deliverable can serve as a starting point and an outline for further discussions with diverse West Maui communities, responsible agencies, non-profits, and private landowners.

The time to get started is now.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Authors

Michael Buck

Michael Buck is a former Hawaii State Forester and Water Commissioner. He holds a masters of science in forest conservation and tropical agriculture.

Peter Adler

Peter Adler is a planner and mediator with a particular focus on issues that involve challenging technical and public policy challenges.

Latest Comments (0)

Great idea, but I only see one spot on the working group that would represent the interests and sentiments of the community. Would that person's voice be equal to the other 7 "experts"? Perhaps if this is done in a pono way. But I can't help but feel that this effort will result in people with letters after their names making decisions about the future that they don't have to live with. Both of the authors of these articles are not from Lahaina. Have people from Lahaina asked them to develop this approach? Shouldn't decisions about a resource as important as water be made with as many people who depend on that resource at the table? Having a few make decisions for the many is part of the reason why we find ourselves in this mess.

H_byrdman · 1 month ago

Many Mahalos Mr. Buck and Mr Adler-This is the only sensible regenerative way to move forward in West Maui.Well said and thought out

chermcmaui · 1 month ago

This is certainly not "rocket science". Now, do we have the will to make it happen. What happened on Maui should never happen again.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 month ago

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