On its face, the plan to reforest more than 7,000 acres of Kuka`iau Ranch is remarkable. Using a combination of government grants, private philanthropy, and market drivers, a substantial chunk of the northern slope of Mauna Kea would be restored to something approaching its pre-human state. Palila would flit about in mamane trees at the upper elevations. The songs of `i`iwi and apapane would fill the koa and `ohi`a forest below.
Why should it cost so very much — $6 million or more – just to lock up the land, with at least that much more needed over the next decades to build fences and plant trees? To acquire a conservation easement over the lower portion will take $2 million in federal dollars, through the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program, plus $600,000 in state funds through the Legacy Land conservation fund. For the upper portion, the appraised value for the fee interest is $3 million. For that, The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i is seeking funds from a number of different federal, state, and private sources, that will allow it to take title.
The price tag, we are told, reflects no more than the going rate for land these days, with an appraisal done to federal standards to back it up. One can’t argue with that, we’re told.
Think again. The market value is based on the highest and best use of the land, and in the case of Kuka`iau Ranch, that is said to be ranching. But in Hawai`i, ranching is profitable only because government programs make it so. If ranchers had to stand or fall on the basis of a free market in beef, without taxpayer subsidies, there would probably be a whole lot fewer ranchers, and the appraised value of ranch land might not be so high. Taxpayers would then be able to buy a whole lot more conservation with increasingly limited public funds.
At at Kuka`iau Ranch in particular, government payments have been especially generous. Members of the DeLuz family, which owns the ranch, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies from federal agricultural programs over the years, and the state virtually bought them a slaughterhouse to process their beef. And through all that time, they have been pulling old-growth koa off the land as though it was going out of style.
Proponents of the acquisition raise the threat of subdivision. To date, sales of the 40-acre ranchettes carved out on the lower portion of Kuka`iau Ranch have been sluggish, to be kind. In any case, at least one couple who bought land from the ranch has been working with the state to obtain grants to help reforest their property, logged to a nub by former owners. In the upper area, the threat of subdivision is even less serious when you consider that it’s miles from nowhere and takes hours over a rutted jeep road to get there – not likely to be the sort of area likely to appeal to the folks that make up the high-end market for country retreats.
There is, of course, the real threat that if the ranch cannot pay off its creditors, banks may end up laying claim to the land, which would tie any restoration plans in knots for years to come. So, argue proponents, now, when there is a willing seller, when funds are lined up from private parties as well as state and federal agencies, why not close the deal?
What, exactly, would the public be assured of receiving, should the deal go through?
In the lower area, the state would get a perpetual conservation easement that would run with the land. The upper area would be acquired in fee and managed by The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i, which has indicated it would want eventually to turn the area over to the public, as state forest or even part of the national forest system.
TNCH has a good track record of managing the lands it acquires, but the easement over the lower portion of the property is more problematic. According to Sheri Mann, who is the staff person in charge of the state’s Forest Stewardship Advisory Committee, not even committee members can be privy to terms of the easement until after the deal closes. In the case of a Forest Legacy easement that the state acquired from Kealakekua Ranch, and for which the federal government paid $4 million, terms of the easement are, some might say, remarkably lax. The ranch owner, Tom Pace, can log up to a quarter of a million board feet of lumber from live trees before he has to notify the state, and there’s no limit on the quantity of dead or dying snags he can salvage. He can continue to graze cattle. He can have hunters up on his land, even as part of commercial hunts, giving him little motivation to eliminate pigs and sheep – anathema to any plan of forest restoration.
The proponents of the Kuka`iau Ranch plan might note at this point that grazing is not part of the long-term management plan. And while logging is, they will say, it’s going to be done in a sustainable manner. To bolster their argument, they point to hundreds of acres already planted in koa seedlings.
A more sober assessment might consider other facts. The company that is doing the planting, Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods, does not have long-term tenure over the land. Even with the best intentions and methods, it may not be able to renew its lease, much less acquire title to the property. If it is thrown off the land, it is unclear what will happen to the trees owned by investors and the legacy trees that are intended never to be logged. HLH claims to have agreements that protect the investor trees, but those are not public and, without knowing what terms will be included in the easement the state acquires, no one can be assured that the legacy trees will be left standing in future logging operations. Nor should one overlook the fact that the success of HLH depends in large part on its ability to continue to sell blocks of koa seedlings as investments. If that market fails or falters, it is unclear whether HLH will be able to weather the resulting storm.
To be sure, reforesting slopes that have been cleared by logging and grazing is one of the most essential projects that the state should be undertaking. But it is in the interests of everyone that this be done prudently and rigorously, assuring taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely. Good projects should be able to withstand scrutiny.
In government, as in forests, sunshine is a tonic. By opening up the processes behind these decisions to more public review, we can be better stewards not only of the land, but of public funds as well.
Volume 22, Number 9 — March 2012