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Stewardship of the land is so central to the Hawaiian identity that the State of Hawaii has established as its motto “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono,” translated literally to “The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness. One of the most isolated archipelagos on earth, Hawaii is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass, the continental United States. In the millions of years since the islands were formed, they have been gradually eroded and converted from inhospitable hardened lava to beaches, meadows and forests by a combination of wind, rain and tides.


These topics are the focus of our coverage:

Land Use in Hawaii

While private land ownership has proliferated in the centuries since Capt. James Cook reached Hawaii, private rights are not absolute. Hawaii’s government has decided we need a process to ensure that we make best use of this most precious of resources. In Hawaii, every potential land use, no matter who the landowner is, starts in the same place: a system of land classification called land use districts. Learn more on the land use page.

Impacts of Land Use in Hawaii

Hawaii has changed dramatically in the last half century. After the advent of trans-Pacific air travel, both the number of residents and visitors has skyrocketed. The population has more than doubled since it became a state in 1959, with some 1.3 million people now calling Hawaii home. In recent years approximately 7 million visitors annually have enjoyed Hawaii’s beauty. While Hawaii’s landmass has remained essentially static over that time, the human demands on it have grown and changed, impacting the land and its flora and fauna in numerous ways. See the Impacts of Land Use in Hawaii page to learn more.


The archipelago of Hawaii contains 137 named islands that together comprise approximately 6,400 square miles or 4.1 million acres of landmass.

Of those islands, eight are considered to be the “main” or “windward” Hawaiian Islands. Ranked by geographical size, they are:

  1. Hawaii, nicknamed the “Big Island,” 4,028 square miles
  2. Maui, nicknamed the “Valley Isle,” 727.2 square miles
  3. Oahu, nicknamed the “Gathering Isle,” 596.7 square miles
  4. Kauai, nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” 552.3 square miles
  5. Molokai, nicknamed the “Friendly Isle,” 260 square miles
  6. Lanai, nicknamed the “Pineapple Isle,” 140.5 square miles
  7. Niihau, nicknamed the “Forbidden Isle,” 69.5 square miles
  8. Kahoolawe, without a nickname, 44.6 square miles

The others, including many small islets and atolls, are considered the “Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” and stretch some 1,500 miles toward Japan. The Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument, established by former U.S. President George W. Bush, contains approximately 140,000 square miles of ocean and some 5,178 square miles of coral reef habitat, increasing Hawaii’s total landmass to the 11,500 square miles cited by some sources.

Over millions of years, lava flows emanated from the Hawaii hotspot caused by a crack in the floor of the Pacific Ocean, creating all of the Hawaiian Islands and a large number of sub-surface seamounts that make up the ridge of the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain.

Over time, plant seeds made their way to Hawaii via three methods: wind, water and wings. Once they reached Hawaii’s shores, plants thrived due to hospitable surroundings that include an abundance of sunlight, consistent warm temperatures, rich soil and varying amounts of rain. Today, Hawaii is home to hundreds of endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna.

Land Ownership

Hawaii’s history has been marked by two different views of land: one based on Native Hawaiian culture and the other based on Western tradition.

Hawaii’s isolation made it one of the last locations on earth to be discovered by man. The exact date Hawaii was settled by humans is unknown. Archeological evidence suggests that the first Polynesian settlers were from the Marquesas Islands, arriving between between 800 and 1000 A.D., although possibly as early as 400 A.D., with Tahitians, Samoans and Tongans arriving in subsequent centuries. The concept of land ownership was not part of Polynesian culture.

Instead, Native Hawaiians for centuries employed a tenure system of land management that incorporated self-sufficient and self-contained ahupuaa, units of land that ran from the mountains to the sea. These large areas were granted by monarchs and controlled by alii (chiefs), with the kapu system — a number of taboos that were incorporated in the Hawaiian religion to identify certain leaders and locations as sacred — playing an important role, but the land was shared by all Hawaiians for sustenance.

English explorer Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778 marked the dawn of a new era. Soon, traders and missionaries reached Hawaii’s shores, bringing with them economic ventures like whaling and sandalwood trade, plus another approach to land management — this one decidedly more Western.

The Great Mahele

In 1840, the Kingdom of Hawaii’s first Constitution stated that while Kamehameha I had founded the kingdom and controlled the land, “it was not his own private property” but instead “belonged to the chiefs and people in common.” Over the next decade, individual land rights were further clarified.

Beginning in 1846, a “Board of Commissioners to quiet Land Titles” was tasked with splitting up many of the parcels, granting awards that were in turn redeemed for royal patents — official land documents from the monarchy — in fee simple, a common form of land ownership. Later, the board was authorized to award “kuleana” land parcels — those for commoners rather than just alii — for the first time.

The shifting tide came to a head during the Great Mahele of 1848, a years-long event that re-distributed land in Hawaii from the semi-feudal land tenure system to private ownership. The new land system would prove to be critical in the proliferation of a new industry: sugar.

Some descendants of the missionaries began to accrue power and land as they provided supplies for the sugar plantations, eventually gaining a foothold in the shipping and banking industries. Landowners that went into debt saw their acreage get swallowed up by these Westerners, who before long had taken ownership of a large portion of the land not controlled by the monarchy.

Many parcels were consolidated by holding companies like the “Big Five” of Castle and CookC. Brewer and Co.Alexander and BaldwinTheo Davies and Co. and American Factors (Amfac).

Large private landowners

Today, large landowners still play a major role. The eight largest private landowners together possessed more than 800,000 acres, 20 percent of some 4 million acres in Hawaii, as of 2003. Those eight are:

  1. Kamehameha Schools/Bernice P. Bishop Estate (366,000 acres)
  2. Parker Ranch (134,000 acres)
  3. Castle and Cooke, Inc. (95,000 acres)
  4. Alexander and Baldwin (90,000 acres)
  5. James Campbell Estate (60,000 acres)
  6. C. Brewer and Co. (44,000 acres)
  7. Dole Food Company (28,000 acres)
  8. Samuel M. Damon Estate (5,000 acres after conveying nearly all of its 121,000 acres of land to various entities in 2003)

As of 2006, 110 large private landowners — those who own more than 1,000 acres on one or more islands — together owned 1.4 million acres, according to data from the Hawaii Office of Planning’s GIS Program. With the addition of smaller landowners, nearly half of Hawaii’s landmass is under private control.

Government landowners

Aside from the largest landowners and thousands of other privately owned parcels, the remainder of Hawaii’s land is controlled by various government agencies. The federal government’s National Park Service controls approximately 370,000 acres, including around 323,000 acres in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and 33,000 in Haleakala National Park on Maui.

Ninety military installations also take up considerable space — around 234,000 acres — in Hawaii. Of those 90 installations, 28 U.S. Armed Forces bases comprise 193,000 acres, 33 U.S. Navy bases use another 32,000 acres, eight U.S. Marine Corps locations together make up about 5,000 acres, and 21 U.S. Air Force installations take some 4,000 acres.

The State of Hawaii owns approximately 1.3 million acres of land, much of which was formerly controlled by the monarchy prior to the 1893 overthrow, areas that are occasionally referred to as “ceded lands“. The 1.3 million figure does not include nearly 200,000 acres controlled by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, a state agency created by the U.S. Congress in 1921 to provide “for the rehabilitation of the native Hawaiian people through a government-sponsored homesteading program.”

The various county governments also own land. According to the Office of Planning’s GIS Program, the City and County of Honolulu owns some 19,000 acres, followed by Maui County’s 8,000 acres, Hawaii County’s 5,000 acres and Kauai County’s 600 acres.

Land Regulation

Stewardship of the land is so central to the Hawaiian identity that the State of Hawaii has established as its motto “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono,” translated literally to “The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness.”

Shortly after Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, the Hawaii Legislature determined that more rigorous controls on the use and development of the state’s limited, valuable land were needed to prevent the exploitation of Hawaii’s resources for short-term gain. The lawmakers took the rare step of creating a statewide zoning system rather than letting individual counties or municipalities make those decisions.

The law, known as the Hawaii Land Use Law, can be found in Chapter 205 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes. Among its many impacts and regulations, the law created the Hawaii Land Use Commission, the state body tasked with defining land use district boundaries and deciding on proposed changes to those boundaries larger than 15 acres, making it the gatekeeper to all development in the State of Hawaii.

Land Use Commission

The Hawaii Land Use Commission is a nine-member volunteer board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Hawaii Senate, with each county represented by one board member and five members appointed at-large. The board implements statewide zoning laws and manages land use districts and boundaries. Like the members of other state boards and commissions, land use commissioners serve four-year terms.

Land Use Districts

The four land use districts defined and by the Land Use Commission are urban, rural, agricultural and conservation. Conservation district lands include forests and water reserves and are used to protect resources, wildlife and open spaces. No uses activities are generally permitted on conservation lands. HRS Section 183Cand the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Board of Land and Natural Resources govern zoning and non-conforming use permits on conservation land.

Agricultural lands, intended for the growing of crops and other similar activities, are further categorized into the most productive (Class A or B) or less productive classes. Acceptable activities in the agricultural district are governed by HRS Sections 205-2 and 204-5. Together, the conservation and agricultural districts comprise approximately 95 percent of Hawaii’s lands.

County Zoning Regulations

While conservation and agricultural districts are largely governed either by state statute or the state government, jurisdiction over the city-like urban and small-farm rural land use districts lies primarily with the individual counties.

Each county in the State of Hawaii has its own rules and laws governing the use of land on its particular island or islands. On Oahu, Chapter 21 of the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu regulates land use in the City and County of Honolulu. In addition to setting permit requirements, the land use ordinance outlines zoning districts, including preservation, agricultural, country, residential, apartment, resort, business and industrial, each with their own sub-zones and restrictions.

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

On the state level, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and Hawaii Bureau of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) are tasked with the administration of state lands. The department includes divisions to manage state parks, public water resources, coastal lands, forests and other public spaces and public interests, including Hawaiian burials. The board is comprised of seven volunteers, who hail from all four counties. They are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate and have four-year terms. The chairperson of the board is the head of the DLNR. The board manages applications for various land-use permits to the department.

Hawaii Department of Agriculture

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture promotes Hawaii’s agriculture and aquaculture industries, and has overseen the transition from pineapple and sugar plantations to diversified crops like vegetables and fruits, a critical period in the transformation of the state’s economy and environment.

The department inspects for invasive species in imported plants and animals, provides financial support to farmers in the form of loans, assures the quality of produce, and administers agricultural resources like irrigation systems.

Environmental Protection Agency

On the federal level the Environmental Protection Agency has the responsibility to ensure that human health and the natural environment are protected. It accomplishes that task by implementing federal law through the enforcement of regulations.

Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments

One of the mechanisms the State of Hawaii uses to control development is the Environmental Assessment-Environmental Impact Statement process laid out in HRS Section 343. Environmental Assessments are required for any projects on public lands or using public funds, or in sensitive areas like conservation districts or adjacent to the shoreline. Documents are presided over by the Environmental Council, a governor-appointed board that serves as a liaison between the state Department of Health‘s Office of Environmental Control Quality, which maintains records of all EAs and EISs filed in recent decades. Contracting an engineering firm to produce an EIS is often a lengthy, costly operation. In recent years, the expense became debilitating for the controversial Hawaii Superferry before the project shut down.

Key Players

To learn more about the key players in Hawaii land issues, go here.

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