Nature Conservancy Plans to Purchase, Restore Mauka Acreage of Kuka`iau Ranch

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Immediately above the land that Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods is proposing for its koa plantation, just across rutted Mana Road, lies a 4,469-acre tract. At its lower elevations (starting at 5,200 feet), the landscape bears the scars inflicted by more than a century of grazing. The once-forested pasture has a few koa snags, wider than tall. A cabin and kitchen house for cowboys, an FM tower and repeater station, and three cellular towers are sprinkled among the water catchments, troughs, and other ranching relics.

At its upper end, close to 8,400 feet above sea level, about 2,000 acres are within designated critical habitat for the palila (Loxiodes bailleui), one of the most endangered native Hawaiian birds. The mamane forests essential to the palila’s survival have been badly hit by grazing and browsing animals, but, under a plan proposed by The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i, the potential palila habitat will be fenced, feral animals removed, and trees planted.

Immediately above the land that Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods is proposing for its koa plantation, just across rutted Mana Road, lies a 4,469-acre tract. At its lower elevations (starting at 5,200 feet), the landscape bears the scars inflicted by more than a century of grazing. The once-forested pasture has a few koa snags, wider than tall. A cabin and kitchen house for cowboys, an FM tower and repeater station, and three cellular towers are sprinkled among the water catchments, troughs, and other ranching relics.

At its upper end, close to 8,400 feet above sea level, about 2,000 acres are within designated critical habitat for the palila (Loxiodes bailleui), one of the most endangered native Hawaiian birds. The mamane forests essential to the palila’s survival have been badly hit by grazing and browsing animals, but, under a plan proposed by The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i, the potential palila habitat will be fenced, feral animals removed, and trees planted.

TNCH acquired a conservation easement over the property in 2009. The same year, it had an appraisal done, which placed the market value of the land at $3 million, and, according to TNCH, ranch owner David S. DeLuz and his family agreed to sell the property at that price.

Now TNCH is asking the state to pay, through its Legacy Land program, $1 million toward the purchase. In addition, TNCH has applied for a grant of $1 million through the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Lands Acquisition program.

It has received $500,000 through the WalMart Acres for America program. That grant passed through two intermediaries: the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation received the WalMart funds before passing them on to the Hawai`i Islands Land Trust, or HILT, which was the nominal grant recipient. Dale Bonar, executive director of HILT (and also chairman of the Legacy Land Conservation Commission) told Environment Hawai`i that HILT transferred the entire award to TNCH, since “we did not wish to hold fee or easement interest on the property, nor any management responsibilities.”

In its application for the Legacy Land grant, TNCH said it expects to receive yet another $1 million grant from the U.S. Army’s Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program. (Although the ranch land does not adjoin any Army land, Alvin Char, who runs the ACUB program in Hawai`i, explained that sometimes, to relieve pressure on areas where Army activities have an impact on endangered species – such as at Pohakuloa Training Area – “we work with someone to increase the population off-post, to relieve the pressure on the Army to conserve on-post.” In mid-February, Char said the Army was still in discussions with TNCH over the ACUB grant.)

John Henshaw, director of land protection for TNCH, explained to the Legacy Land Conservation Commission (LLCC) in December that the Recovery Land Acquisition funds were not a sure bet. “What happened at the last minute,” he said, “was, the federal government had to chop the budget a little bit, so they lost that funding.” Still, according to meeting minutes, he expressed hope that RLA funds would come through this year. “It’s the number one project for the state,” he said. Furthermore, over and above the $1 million that ACUB was being asked to contribute toward the land’s purchase, TNCH was seeking $800,000 for management, “primarily fencing and outplanting of native species in the upper area.”

In its application to the LLCC for funds, TNCH also spells out a role for Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods. “For the lower portion of the property,” it states, “efforts are underway to partner with Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods to reforest approximately 2,500 acres in koa and other native forest species. Funding for this portion of the project will come from HLH ‘Legacy Tree’ sales.” Once title to the property is in hand, the application states, the conservancy, “HLH, and the state and federal government will partner to manage the property.”

At the end of the LLCC’s two-day meeting, commissioners ranked the applications before them to come up with a priority list for funding. The TNCH proposal was ranked No. 6 of eight.

Patricia Tummons

Volume 22, Number 9 — March 2012

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